Ebony Gate: The Phoenix Hoard, Book 1

Book Reviews / Wednesday, July 12th, 2023

By: Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: TOR Publishing

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Not one minute after I vowed in the car ride over to stop living up to the moniker of the Butcher of Beijing and I was tapping my sword and threating pimply faced kids. The ones who called me the Butcher were right about me. I was still a monster.”
Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

The Ebony Gate, by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle, was an exhilarating fantasy that drew me in from the first page and never let up, giving me an amazing ride from start to finish. The authors have created an Asian edge-of-your-seat fantasy overflowing with unique magic, sword fights, hidden markets, LBGTQIA+ representation, and of course, magical creatures. The magic is described as dragon magic, and Emiko, the main character, as a female John Wick. How can I resist a book that has two of my favorite things, dragons and John Wick? It simply does not get any better than this. Taking place in modern day San Francisco, it is the story of Emiko Soong, who wants to leave her past behind when she was the Butcher of Beijing, the assassin for her family clan, the Soongs. There are many families with unique magic, but Emiko has none. Instead, she was trained with a blade and served a different purpose. When she could no longer reconcile the death she dealt at the behest of her clan, she leaves everything behind to rebuild her life in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the her past catches up, and Emiko finds herself fighting for her life, and making alliances with clans to assist her in a nearly impossible quest. I absolutely loved this book. Emiko was a brilliant and endearing character. Plus, she has Bao, a foo lion, that is her companion and protector. Bao was the best. A big foo lion, fierce when he protects her, but all cuddles when he is not. Ebony Gate is a fantastic start The Pheonix Hoard series, and rife with magic, swords, the hero’s journey, martial arts, and richly developed characters. Oh, and of course, Bao! I cannot recommend this book enough.

Emiko Soong has become one of my favorite characters in fantasy. In her, Ms. Vee and Mr. Bebelle have created a complex, thought-provoking character. She knows her past and makes no excuses for it. She also knows that she became what she was because she was born with no magic. While she reconciles with what she has done, albeit plagued many times by guilt, Emiko does feel a little resentful, and rightly so, that her path to become the Soong Clan’s Blade was because of her lack of magic. She wielded the Soong’s ancient Sword of Truth, doing her father’s bidding to deal with the clan’s enemies, and earning the title The Butcher of Beijing. It was a in moment of clarity that Emiko realized she no longer wanted to shed any more blood. Giving up everything but the sword and Bao up, Emiko left to lead a new life in San Francisco. It was interesting that she no longer wanted to be the Blade, yet she always carries Truth with her as a sign of respect.

“I looked at Sword of Truth, cradled in an elegantly carved rack in my room. She housed the spirits of the Soong Blades before me and those spirits had guided my hand when I carried out my father’s orders. They were quiet now but sometimes I’d hear them in my dreams…
I’d worn Sword of Truth on my back almost every waking hour of my adult life. It would get easier for me to leave her, eventually.”
Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

Despite what she was, I found Emiko very relatable, with a very well-done arc. She is not fond of anyone touching her or overt signs of affection. She now runs an antique import company with two women (who are married-love the representation). They are always trying to get Emiko out and come over for dinner. She is their friend, and they really want to get her to socialize and not be alone. Emiko did not form friendships and she does want to get close to anyone. Her family was distant, so she had little affection, and Emiko simply does not know how to react to the constant invitations. She chooses to remain aloof, friendly, but not getting too close. Bao is a constant in her life and he is her closest companion. It was a joy to read how she evolved throughout the book.

“As much as I enjoyed their company, the more distance I kept from them, the safer Tessa and Andie were. It was the price I paid for my past, but one I was willing to pay.”
Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

The magic system was highly unique. Where are the dragons? Each family clan are descendants of the Eight Sons of The Dragon. Each clan possesses a certain magical talent. There are formal dealings between them, and each controls a certain part of cities along the Pacific coast. The magic is fascinating. One family clan are charm speakers. Without even realizing it, they can charm you into doing anything just by using the right words and intonations. Another has wind talent, and another are shifters. Emiko’s clan are warriors. The dealings between the families when favors are asked are respected ancient traditions. I loved the magical fights between the families. They were just as exciting as any “traditional” fantasy battle. While magic was being used back and forth, Emiko relied on her assassin training and her blades.

The main crux of the story happens when Emiko is visited by Sugiwara, a Shinigami or death god. The Ebony Gate, which seals the realm of darkness, has been stolen. If not found, creatures from the realm will pour into San Fransico, and the outcome will likely be the destruction of the city. Her mother made a deal with the death god, he is calling in his favor, and Emiko must answer. She must find the gate, or she will be turned to stone and become the new seal. What ensues is a race against time for Emiko to find who stole the Gate, get it back from them, and then get it to Sugiwara. This involved so many twists and turns. Whenever I thought I knew what was coming, a whole new direction was taken. Through this journey, Emiko learns much about herself and coming to terms with her past. She learns about friendship and trust. It was truly a hero’s journey. And an amazing one at that.

Overall Thoughts

Ebony Gate, the first book in The Pheonix Hoard Series, was thrill ride through San Francisco of magic, swords, ancient artifacts, and ultimately sealing the Ebony Gate which keeps the realm of darkness locked away. Magicless Emiko Soong, an assassin once known as the Butcher of Beijing, is trying to live a peaceful life importing antiques in San Francisco. Not wanting to shed any more blood, she gave up her family clan and her former life. With her mother making a blood debt to Sugiwara, a god of death, Emiko is called back to her former life to find the stolen Ebony Gate, return it, or forfeit her soul to act as the Guardian. Turning into a stone statue was not on Emiko’s bucket list. Emiko is a strong female character, but she has closed herself off to friends and relationships. Her upbringing left little time for friends, and her parents were not at all demonstrative in showing affection. Emiko is full of sass, deadly, and smart. But there’s always room to grow, and her character arc is one of the best I have read. I love that fantasy is becoming more diverse. This was an Asian fantasy, complete with Emiko having a live foo lion named Bao. Her business partner, Tessa, has a wife, which was wonderful to see LBGTQIA+ representation. This story grabbed me from the first page and never let up. There were so many surprises. Just when I thought I had something figured out, another twist and I am totally wrong. I loved this book and can’t wait to read more of Emiko’s adventures. I highly recommend Ebony Gate.


Emiko Soong belongs to one of the eight premier magical families of the world. But Emiko never needed any magic. Because she is the Blade of the Soong Clan. Or was. Until she’s drenched in blood in the middle of a market in China, surrounded by bodies and the scent of blood and human waste as a lethal perfume.

The Butcher of Beijing now lives a quiet life in San Francisco, importing antiques. But when a shinigami, a god of death itself, calls in a family blood debt, Emiko must recover the Ebony Gate that holds back the hungry ghosts of the Yomi underworld. Or forfeit her soul as the anchor.

What’s a retired assassin to do but save the City by the Bay from an army of the dead?

My sincere thanks to Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle for an ARC to review, and the adorable Emiko and Bao sticker!

Find out more about Julia Vee on her website: https://juliavee.com/
Find out more about Ken Bebelle on his website: https://kenbebelle.com/

Purchase Ebony Gate on Amazon


Julia Vee
Julia Vee likes stories about magic, monsters, and good food. Julia was born in Macao and raised in Northern California where she attended U.C Berkeley, majoring in Asian Studies. She has been a trial lawyer for over twenty years practicing in Silicon Valley. She has lectured in colleges and law schools as adjunct faculty on business law and property law.

People ask her why she doesn’t write legal thrillers. She tells them she would write them if she could include magic in them. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise, a science fiction and fantasy residential workshop. She and her co-author Ken Bebelle started writing sword and sorcery when they were 13. Their forthcoming trilogy has been acquired by Tor and debuts with Ebony Gate in July of 2023. Ebony Gate is a contemporary fantasy with Asian elements and mythology set in the Pacific Rim.

Julia is married and met her spouse over a shared love of comics. When not in court, or writing, she can be found chauffeuring the kids to every sports meet imaginable

Ken Bebelle
Many kids who love science fiction become engineers or astrophysicists or comic book artists. I turned my childhood love of Star Wars into a career in prosthetics. With a degree in Cybernetics, I spent over twenty years specializing in upper limb replacement, fitting patients with everything from traditional body-powered prosthetics, to the latest myoelectric technology. Star Wars was a good influence on me.
Since I’ve always been an avid reader of fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, and comic books, it made perfect sense that I would also write SFF. My writing partner, Julia Vee, and I first wrote together in the eighth grade, trading a floppy disk back and forth in the school hallways like spies passing state secrets.
Together, Julia and I love creating rich, immersive worlds filled with the heroes and monsters from our dreams. Thank you for coming to visit our flights of fancy!

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