Score: 8.8/100 (8.8 out of 10)
When a Phoenix Rose Nevermore is an interesting and thought-provoking novella by C.A. Nicholas. It is the sequel to Cycles of the Phoenix, a more complex and multi-faceted novel that we had mixed opinions of. Both books ambitiously confront triggering topics like suicide, self-harm, anxiety, depression, and abuse. With that said, book two is significantly more focused and grounded in comparison to the first one. That was something we actually appreciated.
We love fantasy, monsters, and bizarre stories as much as the next person, however, the issue we had with book one is that it felt like the narration had one foot in the pool and the other foot out of the pool—one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy. It was like the author just couldn't commit or focus on any one thing, creating a bit of a beautiful/chaotic disaster or pretty mess, if we were going to be frank. For that reason, a lot of what was happening seemed less developed, less focused, and less impactful than what the author likely intended. It also came across as a bit confusing and, at times, incoherent.
That's far less of an issue with book two, which is a lot more focused and grounded.
It's a bit funny to say that this book was more focused and grounded than the previous one because it features an imaginative, creative, and perpetually day dreaming character who uses her wild imagination to escape her negative feelings and experiences, but it's true.
It's far easier to understand and digest one character living and working out their issues in a meta, pseudo-symbolic manner than it is to follow ten characters doing the same.
Rather than trying to take us to lands of dragons, monsters, and phoenixes or into a medieval fantasy world, the narrative of When a Phoenix Rose Nevermore stays in a relatively familiar setting, occasionally interrupted by the protagonist's imagination or their stories.
Escapism seems to be one of the key themes of this book, and it's something that we easily caught on to. It wasn't something that we had to do mental gymnastics to figure out like the previous book.
If this book struggles in any one way that's similar to the first, it's that it still insists on playing out the character's deepest, darkest traumas for the audience rather than being subtle about it. Some things don't need to be said. Some things don't need to be shown. In fact, being overly specific and detailed can sometimes take away from the power of a scene. Case in point: the bullying scene. When the protagonist is bullied by her teammates, the narrator makes us privy to every single little thing the mean girls say and do. It would have been much better to keep this scene brief and vague, allowing the audience to fill the gaps instead of potentially triggering them or dampening the emotional impact of the scene.
The author's insistence of over-specificity and on providing a play-by-play leads to the most unintentionally funny line in the book, something which was supposed to sound disturbing but that actually comes across as unnatural or robotic. Dahlia is pressured by her teammates to start shaving her private parts to be more attractive to the opposite sex, to which she responds to her chief bully: "I didn't know that your boyfriend wanted to f**k prepubescent girls, you towering, hairless child."
Geez, did she say this with a posh British accent too? Who talks like that? Seriously, who uses a word like “prepubescent” and calls their bully a “towering, hairless child” when they're about to get pummeled by multiple people? That just seems like something that was scripted by the author rather than something that the character would actually, naturally say.
That was a problem we had with the previous book as well. Everything seemed... contrived and artificial, as if all the moving parts conveniently had to be moved into place for the author to send the message they were trying to send, to serve the purpose they wanted to serve. We had characters neatly fitting into holes and pegs. We had a monster neatly symbolizing depression. We had a character literally teaching and encouraging us not to harm ourselves, using Gideon as a surrogate. So, lines like Dahlia's aforementioned response reminded us briefly that this is the author telling a story rather than the characters living it.
There's a concept in literature called the death of the author. Ideally, the author should disappear from the text and allow the characters to breathe and for the audience to interpret things the way they want to interpret them. You don't want to be force-feeding the audience an interpretation or using your characters as self-inserts or mouthpieces for yourself. That is what made the Gideon sections of the last book insufferable.
We still get the author's voice loudly shouting out over the narration when it comes to the presence of a character literally named C.A. Nicholas and the “Dear Pastor Abigail” letters in which Abigail and Dahlia ramble on about the Song of Solomon and other books in the Bible in a way that sounds an awful more like C.A. Nicholas talking than Abigail or Dahlia.
Because the author insists on self-inserting, we get lines like, “Well, gosh f*ckin' darn. Maybe I'll be famous after I die” which don't help the narrative of the book. Rather, they distract and detract from it.
Again, go away, author. Let your characters breathe their own air and bleed their own blood. Let them find their own way and find their own voice. Don't speak for them or speak through them. It just comes across as forced when an author tries to do that.
Now, with all that said and with all that out of the way: we enjoyed this book. We enjoyed this book a heck of a lot more than the previous book, which is likely still going to be higher rated because of its substance and creativity.
What we loved about this book was the character of Dahlia Noelle, especially when the author stood aside and let Dahlia be Dahlia.
Dahlia has the potentially to be a fascinating and deep character. Like some of the characters in the previous novel, she is a victim of abuse who wrestles with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. However, her coping mechanism(s) seem far more positive and a bit more interesting than Ray's or Isabelle's in the previous book. While Ray and Isabelle attempted to cope with their trauma through a cathartic-like expression of that trauma, Dahlia copes by covering or distracting herself from the trauma using song and dance, jokes, silly situations, and other wonky ideas that come to her imagination. And she's very imaginative!
Dahlia seems like a pleasant person, at least someone trying to be pleasant. While damaged, she does what she can not to show it or to let that negativity rule her life or control her future. There came a point with Isabelle when we kinda felt like she had accepted a victim-like mentality and had stopped fighting. It seemed like she was content with embracing the abuser as her master and allowing him to rule her life rather than defeating and moving past him. Dahlia on the other hand throws everything but the kitchen sink at her problems.
There are times when we really felt for Dahlia and hurt with her, such as when she put the shower on the maximum heat to intentionally burn her skin. What a harrowing scene!
Another thing we loved about the book is that there's some beautiful writing in it. One of the author's favorite techniques is personification, such as when they personify a sticker experiencing the agony of dampness and heat the same way that Dahlia had in the shower. Another example of personification, and another great line, is empathy is said to have been “kidnapped” from Dahlia. This is a much more powerful way of saying that Dahlia lost her empathy.
“We Are Beautiful” is also a beautiful section, featuring the amazing line:
“...all hues of melanin shine with identical magnificence: ivory, ebony, and all the colors in between”
Our favorite line in the book is: “There is no such thing as a perfect day, but every day is perfectly worth living.” That is an early nominee for “Best Quote.”
One last thing we appreciated is that this book had some carry over and continuity with the previous book. For example, we hear more about what became of Isabelle and Ray. We also learn that the previous book physically exists in the universe of this one. In fact, characters buy and own copies of it!
So, though this series has its issues, there is still a lot to appreciate about it.
Check it out on Amazon!