Score: 89+/100 (8.9+ out of 10)
Cycles of the Phoenix is a collection of loosely interconnected short-stories by C.A. Nicholas, many of which explore deep, dark, and—at times—depressing topics like abuse, self-termination, and self-harm. However, the book tends to confront these themes with a positive, inspirational, and/or encouraging approach.
These short-stories range from fantasy and action/adventure to thrillers and realistic fiction.
C.A. Nicholas is a very imaginative, descriptive, and detailed author. That comes with a lot of advantages and some disadvantages. A lot of times, very imaginative and creative people forget to rein it in for the rest of us (the audience). They tend to forget or disregard that 99.9% of us don't have the attention span or memory to keep track of twenty different characters living twenty different lives in twenty different times throughout history or a metaverse.
The same is true with writers like Nicholas who are fixated on being extremely descriptive and detailed. You'd think that would be a good thing, and it can be impressive. Flourishing, flowery prose can be impressive. The thing is, it often impacts pacing and can even be distracting from the main idea or what's going on.
We constantly found ourselves running after one major character to the next, trying to figure out what the main conflict or focus of each and every story was supposed to be. We sometimes found this to be tedious rather than rewarding. Even after four readings, we were still a bit confused. If you look at other reviews of this book online (even the glowing, positive, five-star ones) one word always comes up: confused. Do you really want to confuse your audience? Communicating information clearly and coherently should be the first goal of storytelling with entertainment as a close second. Yes, challenging the audience can be a part of the entertainment factor. That's why mysteries exist. However, you need to be mindful of whether or not your audience is buying your book to read a mystery or buying your book to read a fantasy.
On that note, this book's cover and title would suggest that it is a fantasy book. Yes, the first few stories are fantasy stories. However, this book veers sharply away from that, becoming almost pseudo-biographical in nature. We go from reading about phoenixes swooping in from the sky to save the day from monsters to stories about child abuse and sexual exploitation. Yes, we know that the first may be an analogy to the other, but it doesn't play out smoothly or coherently. You really need to coach yourself and tell yourself: this fantasy story is an analogy for this other, pseudo-biographical story. If you just read each story in isolation and try to enjoy them, it can be a bit difficult to.
So here's what we can tell you about how this book works:
This book is split into three separate but sometimes overlapping anthologies—anthologies full of different short-stories that explore one dark theme or another. It helps (and may be fulfilling) to know that Ray from “Reunion” is the fictitious author of “Sanity's War”--providing a bit of an explanation for the utter chaos that happened in that section. Ray's daughter, Isabelle, likewise wrote the stories near the end of the book, which explains their traumatic nature.
Isabelle is really the first character in the book who we really jived with. She was the first character who seemed more real than metaphorical. Perhaps that was part of what annoyed us so much about the first half of this book: it seemed so... fake. It seemed artificial, like a CGI-plagued Tarsem Singh film that is more concerned about style rather than substance. Now, you could argue: there's a lot of substance, even in the first half of this book. There are analogies for depression, anxiety, suicide, etc. However, we'd counter by arguing: are these analogies helping the story or distracting from/hindering it? When you're overly concerned with checking boxes as an author, sometimes you forget that the point of entertainment is to entertain.
So going back to Isabelle: her story resonated with us because it seemed to be the most REAL, RAW, and RELATABLE. In comparison, we could really have cared less for what Aveline, Kazimar, Neha, Nishat, and Mahli were doing, unless it dealt directly with Soudade (another character we respected). To us, they were like two-dimensional cartoon characters—caricatures crafted to represent someone struggling with something rather than entities unto themselves—ones you can touch, feel, and take home with you.
Karen is another example of a character who seems created just to serve a purpose and to send a message rather than a real, believable entity unto herself. Karen constantly comes at Gideon (a stand in for us as the reader or a suicidal individual) with affirmations and words of encouragement. It just seems so contrived and idealistic. She sounds like an Avon saleswoman trying to convince you of the joys of essential oils. It seemed so flaky and flowery and fake.
It's also a bit humorous that every time a story starts, we pretty much know that the author is going to find some way to describe a major character's hair and eye color as if it has any bearing on the plot at all. It just goes back to how forced and contrived most of this book feels.
On the other hand, there's Isabelle. There's something very natural and organic with her. We hurt when Isabelle hurt and suffered when Isabelle suffered. We felt like crying when Isabelle felt like crying. So, when she gives us the character of Fumi and of the frightening Uncle Gen, we were really engaged with that too. That whole Fumi-Uncle Gen arc actually impacted and affected us emotionally because it seemed real. With that said, what bothered us a lot about those parts was how the author decided to dedicate those stories to victims of child and sexual abuse, then wrote in explicit detail about child and sexual abuse. You know, in a way that could possibly trigger the very people they're trying to honor?
That would be like if we were like, “this book is dedicated to victims of violence” and then wrote a book that was the equivalent of Rambo. Wouldn't that be a bit odd? It's like when they invited all the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack—people who were probably suffering from PTSD and survivor's guilt—to watch the premier of Michael Bay's explosion-happy Pearl Harbor movie.
There's a right way and a wrong way to do it. What you don't want to do is play out these traumatic, triggering scenes moment by moment, detail by detail for the very people who suffered through these things. Catharsis doesn't work that way. Catharsis is when you want to act out something, can't act out something, so you are relieved/satisfied to see it played out on screen (i.e. male/female power fantasies, a person accomplishing a seemingly impossible task, the perfect romance, etc.). Catharsis isn't being the victim of assault, then seeing the actress playing or representing you being stabbed 327 times for an hour and a half of screen time. There's a part when the creator of a work (the writer or director) needs to know when to cut away and leave certain things to the imagination. Sometimes, leaving certain things unsaid can be more powerful than detailing each and every single thing. We don't need to sit through and read day after day after day of this poor girl's physical, sexual, and psychological abuse to get the point. This reminded us of A Hundred Honeymoons by JS Wilson in that regard.
Interestingly enough, that leads into our next point: you don't need to write a play-by-play of every single fight or action scene either. That's one of the first things that Brandon Sanderson will probably tell you about storytelling. Just get your characters from point A to point B in an efficient manner and in a way that makes sense to the audience. You'd be surprised how their imagination plays out the scene in their minds.
Don't believe us? Take Shakespearean plays for example. Many of these plays involve a fight of some sort, yet these engagements are left intentionally vague, almost in a way in which they may seem brief or abrupt to the reader. However, this leads to some interesting interpretations of the same scene played out on stage and on the silver screen. Let your audience flex their creativity muscles and use their own imagination. Don't tell them this, then that, then this, then that. It just makes the writing seem bloated, stilted, clunky, and needlessly wordy.
Think about what made the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith so iconic and memorable. It wasn't the slashing and light-saber twirling, it was the back-and-forth (and sometimes cheesy) banter between the two characters.
Anyway, besides compelling protagonists like Isabelle and Fumi, this book has some terrifying antagonists, namely Uncle Gen—who exploits and manipulates his own nieces—and Soudade—the monstrous manifestation of depression who seeks to drive people over the edge.
All of this comes together in a book that seems to suggest that we're all tied together, interwoven with the universe somehow. It's kinda like Cloud Atlas in that sense. Even the title evokes thoughts of rebirth and reincarnation.
If that sounds up your alley, check it out on Amazon!