Phoenix, by S.F. Said

There isn't a whole lot of middle grade space adventure out there, and so it's always a nice change for the reader who focuses on the middle grade (which is to say, me) to get to go voyaging out among the stars.  Phoenix, by S.F. Said (Candlewick October 2016 in the US)  is the story of  a boy named Lucky, whose own chance to leave home and set out on interstellar adventures starts in just about the worst way possible--with the death of his mother. She is killed by the sinister Shadow Guards (the soldiers of humanity out among the stars) before she has a chance to answer  any of Lucky's questions (he has lots, and they are very pertinent), and so Lucky's journey is one where, in true hero style, he must figure out the truth about who he is and what his destiny is.

His mother's last action (besides dying to save him from the Shadow Guards) was securing them passage off the moon of Ares One that was their home.  The ship she found, though, was an Axxa ship, and the Axxa (with their scary red eyes, horns, and hooves) are currently the official enemies of humanity; the two races are fighting a vicious war out among the stars.   And now Lucky is alone with the Axxa, and he's not happy about that, and neither are they. Plus his mother is dead, and his father, who he's never met, is somewhere lost out among the stars....

But it turns out that the Axxa and the humans are more alike than they are different.  And it also turns out that this particular group might be just whot Lucky needs to find his destiny, and to help him control the inferno that he holds with himself.  For Lucky is a rather unsual kid.  When he is threatened, he burns, sending a conflagration out that he cannot (yet) control.   After several perilous adventures in space, the knowledge and mythology (historical truths?) of the Axxa lead him to the answer that he, and the war torn galaxy, both need, and to a choice that isn't really a choice at all....

The setting, stories, and characters were all interesting, and it all moves along at a nice place.  It's a good one for the older end of middle grade (11-12 year olds).  This isn't cute alien fun (though there is an appealling phoenix) but a deadly serious struggle with an ending whose "happily ever after" comes with a twist, and at a cost.  (There's also a kiss, but that's as far as the romance gets).  It's a book with a good message of tolerance for difference, and peace vs. war, and the main female character is nicely strong and self-reliant.  The blocks of text are broken by black and white illustrated sequences of Lucky's dream-trips through the stars, and illustrations referencing the star beings at the heart of Axxa religion/mythology, which bring an element of surreality and other-worldliness to the reading experience that compliment Lucky's own journey nicely.  (Just for the record, I see the blurb on Amazon calls them "remarkable white-on-black spacescapes," which sounds better, if you can swallow "spacescape").

It didn't quite have enough depth or subtlety in terms of writing or story to make me personally love it (for instance, the wise old Axxa sage is named Mystica) and Lucky never impressed me with quick wit and keen intelligence,  but if you have young readers around who like stories of brave kids discovering they are heroes and ending wars etc., it might well resonate with them just fine.

And now, a quick round of "fun with Kirkus."

"An astrological twist on an age-old story; the echoes of Star Wars, The Golden Compass, and A Wrinkle in Time should win it fans."

So Star Wars because it's about a boy with strange powers and an absent father zipping around in space with a war going on, so that's a perfectly fine echo.  The Golden Compass because it's about a special kid with an interesting device (Lucky has a mystical astrolabe) who makes friends with someone of the opposite sex, and that's as far as I get, which seems a rather weak echo.  A Wrinkle in Time because in both books, stars are more than just balls of gas, and that's really all I've got and this really seems a stretch.  If you do read this one, and find other echoes, please share!

But it's clear that Kirkus meant it kindly, so there you are.  And I do agree that though Phoenix is not for everyone, there will be kids whose socks it knocks off.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration.


  1. Huh. Sounds really, really interesting, but reading between the lines of your review I think maybe it doesn't quite live up to its potential? I'm going to look for it just to see Dave McKean's illustrations, and I'll see if the story grabs me. Awesome cover.

    1. It didn't quite work well enough for me to make me press it into the hands of grown-up friends, but I do think many kids will like it. I hope it works for you!

  2. I really liked the creative narrative and how it ended. The names were really out there, and I thought it was a very exciting novel. I was inspired to build Lego model of the Sunfire spaceship! I would recommend it for 9-12 year olds.

  3. My son said it was one of the best things he has read, and was actually excited to do a book report on it for school. He finished it in 2 days, ignoring television and video games. Hooray!


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