I defy anyone to read the first chapter of Phoenix, by SF Said, without being completely hooked. It is a skilful example of how to introduce multiple strands of a story at breakneck speed without overloading the reader with detail. Despite the homely smell of brownies and other familiar aspects to Lucky’s home life, he is clearly no ordinary boy. Said’s opening sets up so many questions and unknowns as well as producing an immediate sense of pace and danger.
This book trailer offers a glimpse of the first few pages while also showcasing Dave McKean’s striking illustrations, that work brilliantly with the text.
The dramatic opening chapters launch Lucky on a quest across space in search of his father, his own identity and an understanding of the burning power within him. Finding himself aboard an Axxa spaceship, Lucky is befriended by a family of Axxa, aliens he has previously only know as the enemy and has grown up to hate and fear. The apparently fearless Bixa, a feisty Axxa with neon needles in her hair, has her own reasons to join with Lucky on his quest. As Lucky learns about the Axxa and gains a different perspective on the war, his search for his father becomes entwined with the all of their futures and ultimately the fate of the universe.
Startlingly original, Phoenix also has a mythical quality of timeless conflict and ancient knowledge linked to the stars. There are also echoes of other children’s books – the Wolf That Eats the Stars reminded me of the Dark Thing that hangs over space in A Wrinkle in Time. SF Said has spoken about the impact Star Wars had on his early ambitions to be a writer and there are hints of that too. There is so much crammed into it, that Phoenix is one of those books that while the pace of the story makes you want to read on quickly, you also want to slow down and soak up the detail and the careful way in which the story has been crafted. Definitely one for the ‘to be read again’ pile.
Without labouring or preaching, Said weaves in themes of war, racism, identity and love. Lucky’s realisation of how superficial the differences are between Axxa and Humans and the harsh treatment of refugees show how easy it is to fear the ‘other’ and how that fear can entrench hatred and escalate into violence and destruction. Within its fast moving, science-fiction plot, Phoenix deals with some big political and ethical issues. Dark in parts, it is overall an uplifting book; leaving you with feelings of hope and optimism and a sense that you too can hear the stars singing.
All that said, I am slightly surprised that Phoenix hasn’t attract more acclaim. It received good reviews and was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, but unlike SF Said’s previous success with Varjak Paw (which won the Smarties Prize) and The Outlaw Varjak Paw (which won the Blue Peter Prize), Phoenix hasn’t won any awards although it has now be selected for the 2016 IBBY Honour List. Its length (487 pages) may have put some off and although I would argue that it is definitely a book for both boys and girls, I can see how the cover and presentation may have put it too firmly in the action and adventure category, which may have narrowed its readership.
SF Said’s website adds some interesting detail about the writing of the book (scroll down to comments) including that it took him seven years to write. I very much hope that the next one, Tyger, doesn’t take quite as long.