A Phoenix First Must Burn is a Young Adult speculative fiction anthology of short stories written by black women and gender-nonconforming writers. It is edited by Patrice Caldwell and features “sixteen tales that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction and magic, coming together in one spellbinding narrative of bravery, beauty and hope.” The anthology’s title is inspired by a quote from Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents.
First thing’s first, the lineup of writers is incredible and epitomises excellence. Many of the contributors are New York Times bestselling authors and winners of prestigious literary awards. Contributors include Elizabeth Acevedo, Justina Ireland, Dhonielle Clayton and Ibi Zoboi, Ashley Woodfolk, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Amerie, J. Marcelle Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Nicole Davis, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, L. L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong and Ashley Woodfolk.
A Phoenix First Must Burn perfectly encapsulates #BlackGirlMagic and showcases black girlhood in all its multiplicity, glory and pain. It’s a broad and well-curated anthology. The stories within it address a multitude of themes including heartbreak, slavery, love, freedom, friendship, betrayal, beauty, colourism and colonialism. There are also orcs, witches, mermaids, dragons, vampires and more. The stories in this anthology aren’t inherently rooted in black suffering and trauma. I like that. Many of them discuss the ways that black girls are oppressed, but the anthology highlights how diverse our experiences truly are.
These stories feature many different black girls and non-binary people who are powerful and magnificent in their own right. Their gifts and abilities are extraordinary. The queer representation in this anthology made it even more enjoyable. It was beautiful to read about badass black women and non-binary people loving each other romantically and living their best lives.
Each story in this anthology is worth reading but I have my favourites. I emotionally connected with some of them on a deeper level. The stories below gripped me the most in terms of writing, plot, characters and world-building. My favourites are:
- Gilded by Elizabeth Acevedo – Set in the early 1500s in La Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), an enslaved girl patiently awaits her freedom.
- Wherein Abigail Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life by Rebecca Roanhorse – In this Western tale, a teenager is hellbent on revenge, but will she end up choosing love instead?
- Melie by Justina Ireland – An underestimated sorcerer’s apprentice takes it upon herself to save her people when their land is under threat
- Letting the Right One In by Patrice Caldwell – A reserved teen struggling with depression encounters a mysterious and beautiful vampire
- Kiss the Sun by Ibi Zoboi – Follows a group of soucouyants and explores the ways that colourism warps people’s perception of beauty
- The Witch’s Skin by Karen Strong – A young girl seeks revenge on the Boo Hag that killed her lover
“We are flames, yes, but the world throws us away like old coconut shells. Useless and ugly they call us… The world throws us away as if we are a muddied and soiled disgrace. If jealously and the desire of men and boys are the hardest things to deal with in this skin, then I gladly accept. I will take pretty over ugly any day. Any day!” – Quote from Kiss the Sun by Ibi Zoboi
A Phoenix First Must Burn is a brilliant own voices anthology in which black women and non-binary people take centre stage, being heroic and making shit happen. They are not afterthoughts or sidekicks. This anthology is a great introduction to the science-fiction and fantasy genres and one to pick up if you’re already an avid reader of those genres. As a black woman, I found this anthology inspiring and affirming. To my surprise, I identified with many of the characters. After reading it, I now want to dive into all of Octavia Butler’s novels. Patrice Caldwell did a fantastic job editing this anthology and I’m grateful to her for bringing more (literal) Black Girl Magic to our bookshelves.
My rating: 8.5 / 10
A Phoenix First Must Burn by Patrice Caldwell is out now and published by Hot Key Books.
*Disclaimer: I received a free, signed copy of ‘A Phoenix First Must Burn’ from the publisher. This review contains my honest opinions about the book.