The phoenix in urban fantasy

The phoenix is a mythical bird that dies in fire and is reborn from the ashes. It’s pretty well known as fantasy creatures go. There’s one in Harry Potter, for example, so of course everybody knows them.

I’m plotting a book where the hero has to stop an evil phoenix from stealing a magical artifact of some kind. Since I’m writing urban fantasy, the phoenix will be human-shaped most of the time, the way vampires, werewolves, and most other monsters appear human until pressed. That’s no problem–I’m having so much fun dreaming up powers for him to use against the hero. Bad guys are fun.

The trouble is, I’m not sure a phoenix can actually be killed. That’s their shtick–they resurrect. So I went poking around to find out more about the original myths.

phoenix_by_ei_en-d4fe5hn
Phoenix by NekroXIII

1. They seem to originate in ancient Egypt and Phoenicia. The bird was said to be the same rich purple as the expensive dyes the Phoenicians produced. They were the bennu bird, some kind of stork or heron.

2. In Egypt, the phoenix worked like the dung beetle. After it was reborn, it gathered up its parents’ ashes and carried them to Heliopolis in a ball plastered with myrrh. (Source: Wikipedia)

3. It’s a symbol of peace and prosperity. They’re always considered a good omen, or a symbol of a benevolent god of some kind.

4. When they burned up, it was always on fragrant wood, like cinnamon twigs, so a burning phoenix was basically incense.

The death and rebirth of the phoenix is part of the myth. I don’t think they could be killed permanently, but then, they were considered good luck and I don’t think people killed them anyway.

So, as I’m planning my story, I’m wondering if I should bother having the hero trying to kill a phoenix. They only come back. Maybe have the phoenix be a recurring character in other books? (“That annoying phoenix guy, back again from the dead!”) Should the phoenix not be a bad guy at all, but rather be working for the Greater Good, but with goals that go against the hero’s? (Like stealing magical artifacts.)

I needed ideas, so I went and hunted around for other urban fantasy books that feature phoenixes. These are the ones I grabbed samples for.

The Nix series by Shannon Meyer. Girl with phoenix powers fights the oppressive bad guys, mafia, other magic users, and has her family slaughtered in the first chapter of book 1. Eh. Not really what I want to read right now.

Souls of Fire by Keri Arthur. Girl is a phoenix, but the worldbuilding is set up in such a way that she always has to have at least two lovers. Eh. Infidelity doesn’t strike me as an outstanding character trait. Pass.

Phoenix Blood (Old School series), by Jenny Schwartz. A girl with the power to find things runs into her old flame (ha ha!) who has phoenix fire in his blood and a week to live. I kind of liked the setup for this one. The reviews say that it’s not over-the-top with bedscenes, and the hero and heroine are “emotionally mature adults”. I’m down with adult characters who act like adults without panting after each other all the time.

I’m seeing lots of other books, like book 3 in a series, that features a one-shot phoenix character. I don’t want to have to read a whole series to understand it, though. I’m also seeing some YA and epic fantasy with phoenixes, but they use the actual bird. I kind of wanted the humany kind.

Any suggestions of books to try? Or suggestions of how to write a humany phoenix in a way that makes sense?

 

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6 thoughts on “The phoenix in urban fantasy

  1. I did a ton of phoenix research in terms of mythology, especially focusing on the Catholic church interpretation and and the fenghuang, the concept of the Chinese phoenix that is actually dual and has some stuff in common with dragons. I’ve had a hard time making it stick, mostly because of the messy “multiple lives” concepts and also trying to figure out how to make a phoenix a relatable sort of character. Currently in my UF I have the phoenix bird being used as a primary symbol of faith by the Fae who choose a parallel path with Judeo-Christian faith. Because phoenixes were adopted as a symbol of resurrection, so I just ran with it.

    But I’m also seeking an actual, humany phoenix to toss in another story, preferably as the main character. There’s always the superhero route of having someone inherit the phoenix force. In some cases, I’ve found that comics have been a lot more creative with incorporating mythology than the on-screen adaptations would suggest. 😉
    But honestly, I just want a really sarcastic character who has a rather blase attitude towards her own death because she comes back all the time. It seems like a fun way to have a hero be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen people have nine lives, the Chrestomanci in The Lives of Christopher Chant. And Merlin in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga knows how he’ll die, so he’s completely, stupidly fearless in the face of all other dangers. However, he doesn’t know how his friends will die, which helps make him more circumspect. It’s a fascinating character type. I’ve never written one like this before, so I’m kind of at sea.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It sounds really interesting though, I never knew about all of the Phoenix myths. Interesting name for a city.
    I know what ever you write it will be good. It is also interesting to me to see you when your brain starts trying to figure things out, I learn so much.

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  3. I can’t think of a story with a phoenix as a central character. Side character, but not central. You have a lot of wiggle room to rewrite the mythology, since it’s not touched on much. Anything dealing with “how to off a phoenix” will be more modern, and therefore not necessarily part of canon.

    What if your phoenix character is preparing to die/birth itself, and is trying to collect what it needs to make its pyre/nest? If the collection of items puts it at odds with the main character, this will have a lot of natural conflict.

    In some versions of the story, the new phoenix refers to its old self as the parent. I like the idea that it’s not so much reincarnation as it is a new birth. More of a Dr. Who than a Cat Who Came In thing. Some writers who employ canonical phoenixes are Sylvia Townsend Warner, Eudora Welty, and Edith Nesbit (children’s novel). I’ve seen neat rewrites of selkies that make me think of your dilemma–with modern characters having to decide whether they will continue mythological traditions, or choose to blaze new trails.

    Can your character shape-shift? Do you want your character to be solitary, or have a following? Is he trying to live like a human, or trying to rebrand himself for a new generation? So many choices. 🙂

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  4. Just yesterday I saw the first photos released for the movie Dark Phoenix (which will be the 13th X-Men film). I’m not familiar with the story line from the comics, but apparently Jean Grey’s transformation into the Phoenix is a popular X-Men story.

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  5. I think the Phoenix is an interested mythological creature, in my book I actually have a MC who is of a Native American tribe of ancient warriors who can transform into thunderbirds, but I am using the Phoenix ‘death and rebirth’ as my concept on the characters back story and what actually happens to him is tragic. Thank you for a great read to help me better understand my character.

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