I picked up The Phoenix Unchained, the first novel in The Enduring Flame trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory because I haven't read Lackey before (and I wanted to) and this book was available on audiobook (and I needed something for my commute). The Phoenix Unchained is a sequel to The Obsidian Trilogy which, unfortunately, is not available (yet) on audio, and which I haven't read. However, I had heard that this new trilogy can stand alone, so I decided to give it a try.
The Phoenix Unchained begins as best friends Tiercel and Harrier are attending their city's celebrations of legendary events that happened in The Obsidian Trilogy. It's also Harrier's birthday and, as a gift, his strange uncle gives him a book about magick which Tiercel asks to borrow. Tiercel soon finds that he has some magick abilities and catches the attention of a Wild Mage named Bisochim who is far away but wants to make sure that Tiercel does not disrupt his plans for allowing some dark magick back into the world so that he can save the life of Saravasse, the dragon he's bonded to. Tiercel begins to have bad dreams, so he sets out with Harrier to find a Wild Mage who can help him.
What follows is a standard coming-of-age epic fantasy quest involving lots of slow travel, several magical creatures (centaurs, unicorns, dragons, goblins, elves, fauns, etc), and a lot of sarcastic bickering such as teenage boys tend to engage in. The Phoenix Unchained is not high literature, for sure, but it's solidly written, and the heroes are likeable, if not particularly exciting. There are, however, several borrowings from Tolkien and others (gosh, the elves look just like Legolas!) and some explanations and motivations are vague or unbelievable: Why doesn't Bisochim just go after Tiercel himself instead of sending spells or lackeys--sorry--who don't get the job done? When and why did Bisochim and his dragon fall in love (we see this happen, but I wasn't convinced)? How will letting in some darkness extend the life of Saravasse and why is Bisochim (who started off well) willing to let a lot of people die in order to do that? And if he has this potential for evil, why does Saravasse love him? Is Tiercel the only human with high mage powers, as the elves suggest, or is High Magick a skill that many people may be born with (as Tiercel says).
The plot is not particularly tight, and it's hardly original. Nonetheless, I found myself decently entertained and, since there was a major plot-twist/cliffhanger on the last page, I'm curious to see where the story is going. I may or may not go back and read The Obsidian Trilogy first. Lackey and Mallory give enough background and history that I easily understood what was going on and the basics (I thought) of the history I needed to know. However, I found out later in the book, once the boys meet some very ancient characters, that some of the legends that had been passed down for 1000 years where amusingly inaccurate. I missed this humor because I wasn't familiar with the original trilogy. I probably missed some other information that may have helped inform or entertain me, too. For example, what is a mage price? How does this magic work? Is a "balance" between light and dark necessary (as Bisochim maintains)? What is the "phoenix" mentioned in the title?
The Phoenix Unchained is recommended for anyone looking for a "lite" escapist fantasy epic. The audiobook is a good format for this one -- William Dufris's reading is dynamic and well-nuanced, though occasionally whiny as he depicts typical teenage angst. --FanLit.net