A Phoenix First Must Burn, edited by Patrice Caldwell, is a collection of #OwnVoices stories sprung forth from the minds of some of the best and brightest Black women and gender nonconforming authors. These sixteen science fiction and fantasy young adult tales run the gamut in terms of settings, creatures, style, and identities, but all are united in respecting and honoring self and culture.
Of the sixteen authors—Amerie, Elizabeth Acevedo, Rebecca Roanhorse, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Somaiya Daud, Justina Ireland, L.L. McKinney, Dhonielle Clayton, Patrice Caldwell (who is also the editor), Danny Lore, Ibi Zoboi, Danielle Paige, Ashley Woodfolk, Charlotte Nicole Davis, Karen Strong, J. Marcelle Corrie—I’d read about half of them before. That, of course, is one of the best parts of short story collections, that they give readers a chance to sample new authors. Anthologies are never perfect; there are always a few stories that are weaker than the rest. In this case, however, even the weakest of the bunch are stronger than most other anthologies entirely. I honestly couldn’t tell you which story I didn’t like because I liked them all on some level.
There’s something for just about everyone, yes even people who insist they don’t like science fiction or fantasy. Alien invasions to vampires to romance to weird west to dragons to soucouyants to mermaids and beyond, straight and queer and nonbinary and questioning, teens to adults to seniors. There are stories about colorism, mental health, gender and sexual identity, racism, empowerment, systemic oppression, and self-determination. These are not stories that wallow in pain and suffering. They rise up, they put their fists in the air, they make lemonade from lemons.
L.L. McKinney packs a hell of a wallop in “The Goddess Provides.” I’d love a whole novel or novella about Akanni and her battle against the usurpers. “Hearts Turn to Ash” by Dhonielle Clayton is a love song turned breakup ballad turned personal anthem as Etta learns to not give her whole self over to others. Amerie turns the tables on the reader with her story “When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruitbomb.” In it a young woman discovers everything she knows is a lie, that time is a flat circle, and that she has more power to change things than she thinks.
Out of all of the entries, Charlotte Nicole Davis’ story “All the Time in the World” was the one that hit way too close to home. “You are Black, and you have been Black your whole life. But some of your white classmates seem to have only recently noticed.” I remember this moment very clearly in my own life, how the kids I’d known since kindergarten suddenly decided I was different in a very specific way. How even as an adult I am often one of the only Black people my white colleagues know, meaning that every time something racist happens to Black people that makes it onto the national news, they have to track me down and process their feelings at me. How white people speak about areas with a concentration of Black people as if they are crime-ridden cesspits while taking no responsibility for creating and supporting policies and laws that contribute to the lack of resources in those neighborhoods. How I was lucky enough to have a few BIPOC coworkers in my previous job so I had someone to give The Look to whenever white nonsense took over a staff meeting.
“In order to rise / From its own ashes/ A phoenix / First / Must / Burn.” So sayeth Octavia E. Butler, the queen of Black speculative fiction. Editor Patrice Caldwell took inspiration from Butler not only in title but in tone. Like 2019’s equally phenomenal YA short story anthology Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi, A Phoenix First Must Burn challenges the preconceptions nonBlack people have about Black people while celebrating Blackness in all its shades and variations and expressions. By embracing the width and breadth of the Black experience it defies expectations and shuns limitations. Science fiction and fantasy gatekeepers have no power here.
A Phoenix First Must Burn is Blackness at its YA SFF best. It is as interrogative as Octavia E. Butler, as fierce as Beyoncé, as thoughtful as Phillis Wheatley, as revolutionary as Ida B. Wells, as eye-opening as Harriet Jacobs, and as provocative as Zora Neale Hurston. This is the kind of anthology I would have inhaled as a teen, and I can’t wait for Gen Z to get their hands on it. Editor and contributor Patrice Caldwell has changed the game.
A Phoenix First Must Burn is available from Viking Books for Young Readers.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.