This is the second novel in the Phoenix Court series of novels, but other than being set in the same area as Marked for Life, with a few minor appearances from its characters, it’s essentially a completely standalone piece of writing. Just like the first novel, it’s just about the lives of some ordinary working class people, with some great LGBT+ representation, and just a hint of magic realism.
I don’t want to spoil any twists in the storyline, but one of my favourite things about this novel is its very sympathetic representation of a trans character. Written almost 30 years ago, this is a novel that would be dismissed as ‘woke’ if it were published today, but it’s a reminder that the idea of respecting trans people is nothing new. In the novel, the character in question passes as cisgender, and most people don’t know that they are trans. While some characters do use certain words which would not be used today, that is how people would have spoken back then, so it doesn’t really bother me in the slightest – meanwhile, the third-person narrator always uses the correct pronouns for them, and never deadnames them… far ahead of certain people today.
There’s a gay romance at the heart of the novel two, between a young teacher named Vince and a man he’s had an on-again off-again relationship with throughout his life. It felt like it had a lot of depth to it, in that the character reflect on why they want to be together, and the different aspects that drew them back to each other. It’s very introspective and quite difference to any other ‘romance’ that I’ve read before.
Really, there’s not any character in this novel that I wasn’t interested in. The appeal of his writing doesn’t lie in any huge over-arching plot, but merely in the different ways that realistic human characters cross paths with one another. Essentially the story here is that a woman named Liv and her daughter Penny move into Phoenix Court and then this is the story of the friends they make and how they get caught up in the small dramas of those who live there, making friends along the way. I can imagine that some people might find it a bit dull, but I find it fascinating.
As for the magic realism element, there’s a lot less of it in this book than there was in the first one. Notably, Iris Wildthyme is barely in this novel (just two tiny cameos) and it’s a pity, because I adored her in Marked for Life. Of course, there’s not really any way that she could easily be incorporated after what happened in the first book, but I did miss her. Here, the magical stuff is mostly in the background, though it pops up in at least a medium sized way right at the end. It’s done in a fairly strange way too, where nothing is really explained properly. I can see this disappointing some readers too.
Overall though, I think there’s a lot to admire in this book. Paul Magrs gets people and his ability to create characters is fantastic. I think I probably slightly preferred the first book, but I admired this as a progressive piece of writing that was able to switch between comedic and dramatic from chapter to chapter, keeping me engrossed throughout.