A while ago I made a list of fantasy books by people of color, primarily women of color, that I wanted to focus on. This blog doesn’t have a huge audience, but I felt that I should do my part (however small) to spread the word about books that aren’t as mainstream and/or books by people of color. And of course I’m always looking for new and unique voices for my own personal reading enjoyment. It’s been a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories, but in general I find them to be one of the best ways to introduce yourself to new authors. With all of these considerations in mind, I chose to read A Phoenix First Must Burn, and I was very happy that I did.
I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump for most of this year, and one of my favorite ways to get out of one is to read books that are lighter or to read a book that I can dip in and out of over time, so a YA short story collection was perfect. But despite this collection being YA fantasy, I wouldn’t say that every story was particularly light. I believe every story has a black or brown female main character, and several stories feature LGBTQ+ main characters as well. Common themes and topics in the stories include, love (romantic and familial), slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia, and many stories reference black myths, folklore, and history. Some of the stories hit hard, but there is a good mix of writing styles and thematic tones throughout the collection.
For example, one of my favorite lighter, more humorous stories was “Melie” by Justina Ireland. This one was in your typical fantasy setting. It has a black female protagonist who wants to become a magician but is discriminated against because of who she is as well as her body size. I enjoyed this story’s fun dialogue and the small twists. Melie is smart and resourceful and goes on a grand adventure where she confronts mermaids, dragons, and betrayal with wit and grace.
Another favorite was “Letting the Right One In” by Patrice Caldwell. I would call this one an urban fantasy set in modern day Louisiana. It is a sweet love story between a bookish girl with depression and a female vampire. Both main characters are black (Yes, a black vampire!). I liked the parallel between feeling like an outcast and being a vampire and how race, class, and history tied into the story. The romance was a little too quick for my taste, but it is a short story. Despite that I loved how the sweet budding romance formed, the characters, and I really wished it had been longer so that I knew what happened to them! After reading this story and a few others in this collection, I think I really like sweet female/female romance.
I also enjoyed some of the more serious and hard-hitting stories, like “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo. I would classify this as a historical magical realism story, and the plot involves a slave uprising. The main character struggles between the chance of buying her freedom through working hard for her master or by helping her friends and taking freedom for herself.
I could go on, but hopefully you can see the range of different stories within this collection. There is likely something for everyone here if you like fantasy, magical realism, or sci-fi. I didn’t love every story, but the collection as a whole is very strong, so I gave it four out of five stars.