3 out of 4 stars
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A dead woman has been left in a morgue's cold chamber, but is revived and 'abducted' by a mysterious man. The pair manage to escape the hospital, and reach private lodgings out of the city. The bewildered woman meets other strangers, and her appalling wounds are healed. She is told she has great power.
This surreal opening is utterly gripping. It depicts the thoughts of the woman - called 'Heaven' - and concentrates on her disbelief over being suddenly alive again. She is being helped by the awkward Blake, and cannot believe how kind he is to her. To her mind, things are surely too good to be true.
The mystery eventually clears, and the reason for Heaven's resurrection becomes apparent. She is told that she is a 'Wielder', and one of a small group of women with unique abilities. Heaven can wield the 'Phoenix', and so manipulate fire, in a variety of ways. Despite the Wielders' supernatural advantages, they still rely on their male 'Guardians'; Blake being the one newly assigned to Heaven. Although the Wielders are a positive force, they must also defend themselves from another large group of mystics, who are utterly ruthless and lethal.
As Heaven somehow comprehends the new life she must settle into, the reader is suitably engaged and willing her to succeed. At the same time, there are some intriguing throw-backs to her 'past life'. The author effectively highlights just how different a person Heaven is turning into. Her previous life was overshadowed by an abusive boyfriend, but it eventually becomes just a passing thought.
Heaven is clearly the central character, but O'Connor also describes the thoughts of Blake, and those of Alistair, who is an established Guardian. Both men are quite noble, but Alistair has some vices, and moments of recklessness, whereas Blake rarely takes any undue risk.
Other significant characters feature. The leader of the 'good' sect is known as the 'Keeper', but retains his normal name of 'Robert'. Other Wielders are introduced, and are all more experienced than Heaven. One of these women is Nadia, and she soon becomes an important 'sister figure' for the newcomer. There is also a Wielder/Guardian couple, who have a hidden romance. This only becomes obvious, however, when an unexpected event occurs.
Third person prose features throughout, and it also conveys the deeper thoughts and emotions of Heaven, Blake, and Alistair. There are a variety of locations, which are all within South Africa. These places facilitate Heaven's transition into a fully-fledged Wielder. She has the necessary accommodation, training zones, and social venues. Although most people she meets are helpful, the alternative feel of her surroundings is never forgotten. The astral plane also features in a somewhat abstract manner.
Character development is strong, and the key dramatic twists are executed well. Some sections could have been stilted, but end up as memorably surreal. A varied vocabulary is employed, and the sentences rarely get over-complicated. The focus on the main characters' journeys makes the book quite easy to follow.
Some minor characters also prove involving. This shows the effort O'Connor has put into making the story feel believable. I remember, in particular, the barmaid who Alistair has an on-off relationship with. She is both charismatic, and useful in highlighting the world that these sect members have chosen to forego.
I did find the material on Heaven getting into a daily routine, and acquiring belongings somewhat drawn out. Whilst it covered her raw emotions, the book's pacing was notably weakened. The climactic action scenes also seemed flatly written. Given how well the different 'practice sessions' read, it is odd that the actual 'high stakes' showdown felt less important.
At times, I struggled with dialect or slang that I assume is commonplace in South Africa, but rather less so in other English-speaking countries. However, there was never a crucial section where this became problematic. Additionally, I was unsure about the general mythology and supernatural elements. There perhaps should have been more elaboration, which could feature in the characters' conversation, and the narrative.
Overall, this book is a success. It blends normal life with the supernatural convincingly. O'Connor has impressive powers of imagination, and can depict individuals with relatable strengths and weaknesses. The beginning is very effective, and ensures that the reader wants to know more. There is also a skilful balance, whereby many questions are answered, but new uncertainties are introduced at the same time.
I give the book 3 out of 4 stars. It has many strong elements, but some of the weaknesses I mentioned prevent it from being excellent.
This is a promising debut entry in an ongoing series, and I look forward to more from this author.
Finding The Phoenix
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