The Plot Thickens: A Phoenix First Must Burn

 book cover - A Phoenix First Must Burn
book cover – A Phoenix First Must Burn

To a bookish introvert, books are often the friends we need to take us outside of our heads and into other experiences. Sometimes we’re lucky and a book will remind you of your IRL friends or your own life. A Phoenix First Must Burn happily afforded each of these opportunities to me by offering an anthology full of intriguing voices.

With sixteen stories written by as many authors, it truly isn’t hard to find a story that not only entertains but may also resonate with you or someone you know. One stand out to me, and surely some of my magic and dragon-loving friends who have often had their names mispronounced and their work undervalued, is Justina Ireland’s Melie. The premise of this short story — which I hope will lead to a full novel — is that Melie, a young Black woman from a small village, has moved to the coastal community where the High Sorcerer can be found only to be thwarted in each attempt she makes to grow as a magic user. Each time Melie completes a task set to her, even with outstanding success, her superiors tell her she is inept, which has deep effects on how she connects with her magical ability. This story reminded me a lot of experiences I had in academic settings and the sort of doubt I faced there. Melie’s hinted storytelling skills and persevering attitude towards following her instincts are precisely the mores I would’ve needed to hear during that trying time and especially as a teenager — I’m glad this story is available to YA audiences today.

I found Danny Lore’s Tender-Headed, a story about a young woman confronting a neighborhood witch encroaching on her hair-braiding clientele, to be one of the best recent reads to marry urban tales to a contemporary setting. My favorite part was the protagonist, Akilah, having her head done by the witch that she opened the story obviously angered by. In this part of the story we witness witchcraft in braiding and who exactly Akilah’s quarrel is with. I left the story feeling more understanding of what may lie underneath the hotheadedness of people I tend to shy away from due to my need for conflict aversion. It’s refreshing to see how direct confrontation can actually bring on self-actualization.

Another contemporary story in this anthology revitalized my unrealized ‘90s kid dream of a present-day Alex Mack — a beloved ‘90s Nickelodeon TV show about a teenage girl developing super powers after being contaminated by toxic waste — in Charlotte Nicole Davis’ All the Time in the World. In this work, Jordan Carter, a teenager still making sense of owning their sexuality, discovers the ability of freezing time after about two years of living with city-contaminated water. While we end the story with some sense of resolution, there’s also an opening for expansion, as we hear about other people manifesting powers from the underserved community that has been most impacted by the water contamination. I can only hope for more from a story with such great source material.

While the amount of stories with fantasy elements were my personal favorites, as I attested to earlier, there is truly a story within this book for everyone. From the futuristic science fiction offered up in the book’s first entry (When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruitbomb by Amerie) to historical fiction Western (Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and Subsequently, Her Best Life, by Rebecca Roanhorse) to contemporary romance (The Actress by Danielle Paige), this anthology could easily become a book to be passed from friend to friend, sharing notes and gaining insight on the story elements that mean most to those in their closest circle. A Phoenix First Must Burn is a book that shows the guidance and joy to come from reading the works of Black writers who can execute the nuances of being a Black girl with the tenacity and vibrance they deserve. 

Books are magic. Black girls are magic. This book featuring vignettes into worlds centering Black girls is the perfect sort of magic to share with your favorite Black girl coven.