Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Phoenix Keeper by S.A. MacLean

Title: The Phoenix Keeper
Author: S.A. MacLean
Release: August 13, 2024
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 496
Review: 5 Stars


Set in a magical zoo teeming with mythical beasts from dragons and unicorns to kelpies and krakens, The Phoenix Keeper is a fierce joy of a cozy fantasy novel with a soul-restoring queer romance at its heart, for fans of The House in the Cerulean Sea and Legends and Lattes.

As head phoenix keeper at a world-renowned zoo for magical creatures, Aila's childhood dream of conserving critically endangered firebirds seems closer than ever. There's just one glaring caveat: her zoo's breeding program hasn't functioned for a decade. When a tragic phoenix heist sabotages the flagship initiative at a neighboring zoo, Aila must prove her derelict facilities are fit to take the reins.

But saving an entire species from extinction requires more than stellar animal handling skills. Carnivorous water horses, tempestuous thunderhawks, mischievous dragons... Aila has no problem wrangling beasts. But mustering the courage to ask for help from the hotshot griffin keeper at the zoo's most popular exhibit? Virtually impossible.

Especially when that hotshot griffin keeper happens to be her arch-rival from college: Luciana, an annoyingly brooding and insufferable know-it-all with the face of a goddess who's convinced that Aila's beloved phoenix would serve their cause better as an active performer rather than as a passive conservation exhibit. With the world watching and the threat of poachers looming, Aila's success is no longer merely a matter of keeping her job...

She is the keeper of the phoenix, and the future of a species– and her love life– now rests on her shoulders. 

You Can Find It At:
Barnes & Noble


The Phoenix Keeper was SO GOOD! Seriously, it's like it was made just for me. It's a standalone fantasy set in an alternate contemporary world. The main character Aila is the zookeeper for a critically endangered phoenix and more than anything else, she wants to revive the zoo's breeding program for the phoenix. Unfortunately, she is short one male phoenix. Thus begins our cozy, queer, fantasy that you do not want to miss!

One of the things I loved about The Phoenix Keeper was Aila's character arc and growth. She suffers from social anxiety which makes her a loner amongst her zoo colleagues, save for her one long-time friend. However, along with the anxiety, Aila views the world in a self-centered way. She has a habit of thinking poorly of others, most notably her long-term rival Luciana, who runs the zoo's griffin show. Aila is immediately relatable, but not alway likable. This is clearly on purpose. Watching her grow as a person alongside her plot journey was a delight. To see her connect with others, care about them, and even come to think of more people as friends, was like watching her blossom. Her growth is interwoven really well with the story such that it sneaks up on you. Suddenly she's approaching people and community in a new light, but all the work is there. It helps that there are several time jumps in the book, so it doesn't feel like she becomes a totally new person in two weeks.

I am a total zoo nerd. I was already excited for The Phoenix Keeper, but when I learned that it is inspired by the San Diego zoo and the conservation efforts to save the California condor, I knew I was in for a treat. While I am no expert in zookeeping or animal care, the author clearly knows her stuff. The world of the zoo was intricate and exact. We got daily care routines for a variety of magical animals (many similar to real-life animals). We got inner-zoo rivalries. We got the bureaucracy and competitiveness of endangered animal care. I went along this journey with Aila from the every day routines to the extraordinary adventures. The book explores *why* zoos matter, both in Aila's world and ours. It also integrates the very real threat of poaching, not just in the wild, but in supposedly protected zoos. And it shares the way animals are harmed both by active human greed and ambition, but also by lack of care.

While the romance isn't the core of the book, there is a sapphic romance side-plot. The world is largely queer-normative, or at least Aila's portion of it is. There's no 'coming out' or exploration of sexuality. Aila is attracted to many genders. Her best friends is trans. None of this is questioned or even noted beyond to share with the reader. She begins the book with a crush on co-worker, and dragon keeper, Connor. But over time, she develops some complicated feelings for her long-time nemesis Luciana. Aila's character arc in relation to Luciana in particular felt really well-done. While the book doesn't fall into the 'sexy fantasy' category we see a lot nowadays, I think it will do well with romantasy fans who want to lean more into the fantasy side of things.

I want to note that there is a map at the beginning of the book, however, I was not really able to see it in my digital ARC. I bet it's as amazing as the rest of the book, but I will be discovering it with everyone else when my preorder comes.

I would be remiss to end this review without noting the absolutely GORGEOUS cover. Truly a 10/10. The detailing on the phoenixes is exquisite. There are so many magical creatures described in the book, one thing I would love to see are illustrations of the other animals at the zoo. The kelpie is one of my favorites (you'll discover why when you read it), but there are also several types of dragons, phoenixes, griffins, unicorns, and more. Also, the vanishing ducks. Aila spends a lot of time in an aviary with an assortment of different avian magical species, and it would be cool to see an illustration featuring Archie's tower and the other critters roaming around. And as long as I'm placing an order, I want stickers of all the creatures in the book. I think this book does very well as a standalone, but I will not say no to literally anything else I can get. I will definitely be reading S.A. MacLean in the future and you need to check this out when it releases in August!

Author Bio:

S. A. MacLean is a romantasy author from sunny California. Infatuated with magical worlds since her days of brewing mud potions in her childhood garden, she fell in love with the romantasy genre after realizing all her favourite fantasy novels had kisses in them. Her stories invariably feature quirky humour, sassy animal companions, and queer casts who represent her voice as a chaotic bisexual woman.
Sarah received her BS in Natural Resources from Cornell University and a PhD in Environmental Science from UC Berkeley. If you think that sounds overly pedantic, well, she agrees! So she left the research track to teach environmental science at her local community college, inspiring the next generation of students to save the planet. Her ecology background seeps into her fantasy worlds as odd plants and an obnoxious number of bird references.
She currently lives in California with her partner, two cats, and a growing saltwater aquarium. She is represented by John Baker of Bell Lomax Moreton.

You Can Find Her At:

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