Earlier this year I panned Ruins & Revenge, a Raine Benares spin-off novel featuring Tam as the main character. In my review, I expressed my disappointment over Lisa Shearin’s plotting, but I reassured myself that I would continue reading her novels (specifically her SPI Files series).
I might need to revise that prediction. I might need to take a long hiatus from Shearin’s novels for a while.
The Phoenix Illusion begins with a building appearing out of nowhere in an empty block of New York City. Not-so-coincidentally, that building belongs to Rake, our protagonist Makenna’s goblin boyfriend, and it’s not from our world but rather from the world we know from the Raine Benares series. That’s not all—buildings from around the United States have been disappearing, most of them in isolated locations where people wouldn’t notice a building vanishing right away. Someone is up to no good, and Rake, Mac, and the rest of the SPI team need to find out who, what, and why. Oh, and Tam shows up. Yay.
I’ll cut right to my criticism: Mac doesn’t do much in this book until the climax. She is, for the majority of the story, merely our first person narrator, mostly there to provide us with interminable exposition and occasionally making sly innuendo about other characters who are in relationships. I have written about Shearin’s penchant for exposition before, and maybe it used to work better for me, but in this book I was getting annoyed. I wanted something to happen, yet after the initial excitement of Rake’s otherworldly headquarters showing up in New York, it’s a while before anything does.
When it does occur, Mac isn’t integral at all. This hasn’t always been the case—she has played far bigger roles as a seer in other books—but for some reason in this book, she feels extraneous. Her role as a seer is underutilized for most of the book, and everything happens to her or around her instead of at her own instigation. This lack of agency makes for a boring story and also does little to get me excited about Mac or her relationship with Rake, which is the focal point of the characterization. In contrast, Mac’s partner Ian is there, but it feels like he barely gets any lines. There is almost no exploration of their friendship and professional relationship like there was in previous SPI Files books.
To be fair to the book, Mac eventually gets to do something near the end. With entirely predictable comedy, she ends up in the thick of the villain’s evil plot. But it’s wrapped up very neatly, with little enough trouble for any of the good guys and only a moment of tension for Mac.
This is the crux of my dissatisfaction with this story: none of it feels like it matters. Ok, so the bad guys are moving buildings around (and even between dimensions). I agree that’s villainous, and at one point the good guys remark on how it could be deadly for people inside those buildings. So I see the potential for the plot of this book to matter. Nevertheless, when you get right down to it, very little bad happens in this book, and what does happen is resolved without too much fuss. There are no hard choices, and therefore no room for character growth. The Mac at the beginning of The Phoenix Illusion is the Mac at the end, albeit perhaps hornier for Rake than ever before….
Hence the need to perhaps take a hiatus from Shearin for a while. I don’t want to dislike these books as much as I am, because I really did enjoy the first few Raine Benares books and also the beginning of the SPI Files. Shearin is a good writer, but lately her plots have fallen flat, in favour perhaps of her fondness for the characters she has created and the worlds she wants to showcase. This exuberance doesn’t lead to excitement for the reader, alas, and that is where I am at with The Phoenix Illusion.