"A Phoenix First Must Burn" Has Fiery Passion and Imagination

“In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix must first burn.”

This quote from Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents is what inspires the title for this young adult sci-fi fantasy short fiction anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell. In the stories of A Phoenix First Must Burn, Black authors such as L. L. McKinney and Karen Strong weave fantastical tales of Black girls and gender nonconforming folks.

One of the first things that I came to appreciate about this anthology is how varied the stories are in terms of genre and setting. One story, “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo, is set in the Americas in 1522 and features an enslaved Black woman who has the ability to bend metal. According to the editor’s note at the end of the book, this story is Acevedo’s interpretation of the first major slave revolt. 

Another story, Karen Strong’s “The Witch’s Skin,” is inspired by the Gullah/Geechee myth of the Boo Hag, an evil haint that steals a victim’s life breath. The editor’s note states that the setting is influenced by the Georgia Sea Islands, specifically Sapelo Island, where nearly all are descendants of enslaved West Africans.

The stories included in this anthology also showcase a variety of subgenres and subject matter. One of my favorite stories was Danny Lore’s “Tender-Headed,” an urban fantasy story about hair-braiding and memories. I was pleasantly surprised to learn via the editor’s note that it was a spin on the Greek myth of Athena and Arachne. Another story, “Letting the Right One In” by Patrice Caldwell, features a teenage Black queer girl who loves vampires in more ways than one.

Some of these stories might be a pleasant surprise even for readers who don’t usually enjoy the genre they are written in. One example of this is Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life.” This turned out to be a Western story featuring a Black cowgirl who returns from death to enact vengeance in an unexpected way. As stated in the editor’s note, the story was inspired by the legend of Stagecoach Mary and the real-life all-Black settlement of Blackdom Township in Roswell, New Mexico.

As with all anthologies, I didn’t like every story, and chances are other readers won’t either. Even with some of the stories I liked, I wished there had been more of the stories to read. Some felt like they could have been longer, a novella or even a full-length novel. Nonetheless, all of them are still worth reading.

This anthology is filled with fiery passion and imagination. A Phoenix First Must Burn is the perfect book to introduce a teen reader to sci-fi fantasy, because most of the authors have other work to read afterward. It is also a great book for adults to appreciate Octavia Butler’s enduring legacy regardless of how much sci-fi fantasy they like.


The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.