Alana Clarke,
The Phoenix Orb
(Be-Mused, 2002)

The fantasy world of The Phoenix Orb is a medieval one of powerful trade guilds and wall-encircled towns whose gatekeepers may be bribed with coins of gold, silver and copper, coins that jingle in bags and rattle across the bar counters of taverns in payment for wine, lodgings or information.

It is the world in which Shiraz has grown up. Named for a grape whose wine typically is "demanding, dry, of rich color and good legs," she is the illegitimate daughter of a whore, but most importantly she is a member of the Guild of Assassins. As such she legally accepts contracts to kill people, and killing people is something she is very good at.

On one level the story of The Phoenix Orb is the story of a quest, a quest for the eponymous Orb. It commences when Shiraz accepts a routine contract to kill someone. But the person seeking the contract is not, as first appears, acting alone but is a member of a group of eight individuals (the "Creatures") who have plans for Shiraz other than a straightforward contract to kill. So the adventure begins.

As the story progresses and the body-count builds, we see another quest unfold, that of Shiraz for her true self, a self that will have the capacity to love. Mere sight of the distinctive black cloak of the assassin is enough to make people want to move aside and withdraw, fear preventing them from knowing or caring about the person beneath. Shiraz is aware that she too uses this same cloak, and the rigorous rules of the Assassin Guild that accompanies it, to hide from her true self.

Shiraz's fragile sense of self is indicated throughout by not only this reliance on the assassin's cloak to hide feelings of inner hollowness from herself and others, but also by the fact that she possesses not one name but many. "Shiraz" is her guild name, "Blackbird Twocoppers" is her birth name, she answers to "Bird" and also had the name "Calyx."

Narrative drive and tension builds as Shiraz's two quests, for the Orb and her true self, become intertwined. One of the Creatures, Griffin, believes that once the Orb is in their possession its magic will have the capacity to re-embody Shiraz as the beautiful Phoenix, a woman with whom he is obsessed. Meanwhile, Shiraz may have fallen in love with Griffin, but does he love her or what she may one day become, his long-lost love, Phoenix? Does yet another name await Shiraz, this time her true self?

The Phoenix Orb does not attempt to suspend our disbelief -- Shiraz and Griffin exist in a world of magic, one that can never exist. What fantasy writing often succeeds in doing is creating a "secondary belief" in its worlds, for example by providing the reader with fictitious maps of the territory, along with exquisite details of the social and cultural milieu of its characters. Here the author takes a middle way, one in which historical incongruities and anachronisms abound, clashing unashamedly (and sometimes with comic effect) with the medieval setting.

The overall quality of dream possessed by the novel is a consequence of this "middle way," and while at times the dream becomes somewhat fevered it never descends to the level of nightmare. Young adults who favour strong, independent, fearless heroines to whom it is of great consequence that they find someone worthy of falling in love with are sure to enjoy The Phoenix Orb.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 27 July 2002