Book Review: A Phoenix First Must Burn

Title: A Phoenix First Must Burn

Author: Edited by Patrice Caldwell

Genres:  Anthology

Pages: 368

Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers

Review Copy: ARC from publisher

Availability: Available now

Summary: Sixteen tales by bestselling and award-winning authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.

Evoking Beyoncé’s Lemonade for a teen audience, these authors who are truly Octavia Butler’s heirs, have woven worlds to create a stunning narrative that centers Black women and gender nonconforming individuals. A Phoenix First Must Burn will take you on a journey from folktales retold to futuristic societies and everything in between. Filled with stories of love and betrayal, strength and resistance, this collection contains an array of complex and true-to-life characters in which you cannot help but see yourself reflected. Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels: the heroines of A Phoenix First Must Burn shine brightly. You will never forget them.

Authors include Elizabeth Acevedo, Amerie, Dhonielle Clayton, Jalissa Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Davis, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Justina Ireland, Danny Lore, L.L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi.

Review: The back of my copy of “A Phoenix First Must Burn” says that it is anthology that is “Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ meets Octavia Butler” and I have to say that this is true. All the stories in this anthology are so full of Black Girl Magic and so full of meaning that they just touch the heart. I can’t say whether or not I had a favorite one as all the stories moved me in different ways. If there was a theme, aside from Black Girl Magic, that ran through all of these, was that is majority of the stories all of the girls were coming into their power in some way – being it literal power as in L. L. McKinney’s “The Goddess Provides” to overcoming heart ache and finding power in the self as in Dhonielle Clayton’s “Hearts Turned to Ash”.

The stories ranged from taking a twist on historical events to glimpsing at the future. Elizabeth Acevdeo’s story, “Gilded” told of a girl who was able to wield metal and helped bring a slave rebellion and Justina Ireland’s “Melie” had sorcerers, mermaids, and dragons, and was just a great statement of how Black girls often get overlooked by mediocre white men and that can cause self esteem issues, when in actuality, she should be listened to. Patrice Caldwell and I have a shared love of vampires, so I was sooo happy to see her vampire story “Letting the Right One In” and instead of it being a creepy story, it was a story about friendship, family, and first love (at least I imagine that the two main characters, Corrie and Ayanna have a great love affair). One of the more surprising stories, for me at least, was Danny Lore’s “Tender-headed” which basically tapped into the power of our hair and learning lessons from our elders.

All of the stories in this anthology were steeped in the fantastical but were so authentically Black in the variety of ways of Blackness. For me, it was refreshing to read these stories of Black girls learning lessons and coming into their own, while at the same time having moments of just pure Black joy. I have to say this anthology would have made Octavia Butler proud.