Phoenix: The Five Ancestors Out of the Ashes, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Phoenix: The Five Ancestors Out of the Ashes, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Exciting adventure of bike racing, kung fu, Chinese myth.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Phoenix's travels take him from his Indiana home through modern-day China and Texas, and young readers will pick up some knowledge about those places, as well as a bit of Chinese vocabulary. They'll also get an inside, age-appropriate look at the hot current issues of high-stakes, money-driven sports, and the substance abuse and other tactics the unscrupulous use to get ahead.

Positive Messages

While Phoenix and his friends engage in a lot of martial arts combat, some deadly serious, the overall messages here are positive ones of love and loyalty. Phoenix also learns that careless treatment of friends in everyday situations can lead to unexpected bad consequences. Cheating, especially in bike races, is scorned.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Phoenix is a good role model in his love for his grandfather, his courage and fundamental kindness, his dedication to his sport, and his ability to learn from his mistakes. Hú Dié is a complex character whose family seems habitually involved in shady activity, but whose resourcefulness, bicycle prowess, and kung fu skills save the day several times. Phoenix's grandfather is doing an excellent job of raising his grandson and instilling good values.


Sometimes-deadly gunplay, attacks by street thugs, and lots of kung fu fighting. A number of (generally villainous) characters end up dead. One of them uses his horse and his dog to attack the kids, but the animals don't come to real harm. Rather than being scary or gory, the violence tends toward the enthusiastically cartoonish and slightly unreal, thanks in part to the mythic elements. Some kids' parents, including Phoenix's, have died before the story starts, which influences the teens' motivation and character.


There may be some future romance in the cards for Phoenix and the slightly older Chinese girl Hú Dié, but for the moment they're both far more interested in kung fu and fast bicyles.


Phoenix's grandfather drives an old Ford Ranger; Hú Dié is obsessed with shopping at Lance Armstrong's bicycle store in Austin, Texas.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The subject of sports doping -- and why it's bad -- is integral to the story. Numerous favorable references to Lance Armstrong, still perceived as squeaky clean at the time of the book's publication, lend a certain unwitting irony.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Phoenix is a fast-moving, exciting series-starting adventure set in today's world that's a follow-up to author Jeff Stone's Five Ancestors series, which tells of five 17th-century orphans proficient in kung fu and how they saved China.  Here, 400 years later, young Phoenix Collins, a 13-year-old orphan with a passion for bicycle racing and training in kung fu, embarks on a quest to save his grandfather's life. There's plenty of physical combat with both bad guys and kung fu masters; a number of weapon-brandishing villains end up dead, some at each other's hands and some killed by one of the good guys. While described with gusto, much of the fighting has the comically over-the-top quality of mythological kung fu movies rather than excess gore. Published just before Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, the book has one of the characters idolizing the bike legend. The subject of doping by bicycle racers and other athletes is central to the story, and clearly viewed unfavorably.

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What's the story?

Phoenix Collins, son of a redheaded father from Indiana and a Chinese mother born in China, lost both parents in an accident when he was a baby. Raised in Indiana by his Chinese grandfather, who's trained him well in kung fu, the 13-year-old is a skilled and passionate bicycle racer. After thieves steal a mysterious powder made of ancient dragon bone from their home, putting his grandfather's life in danger, Phoenix heads to China in search of more dragon bone -- a quest that connects him with sometimes helpful, sometimes dicey characters, as it turns out many people want dragon bone for themselves.

Is it any good?

Fans of author Jeff Stone's Five Ancestors series will be delighted with PHOENIX, which brings the issues and cosmic conflicts into the lives of today's kids. Kids who are into bicycle racing, martial arts and/or Chinese mythology will find plenty of fascinating detail and fast-moving adventures; they'll also get life lessons on such subjects as consideration, kindness, and family loyalty. The complex, interesting characters include a teenage girl and an old Chinese lady, who are fully equal to or better than their male friends and adversaries in key areas, including martial arts and bike-riding skills, as well as outsmarting villains. While generally age-appropriate, the story will appeal to adult genre fans as well as kids. As the first book in a new series, Phoenix avoids the frequent pitfalls of spending too much time in world-building or overselling the previous, related series; it works well as its own story, and leaves readers wanting to know what happens next with these characters.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about performance-enhancing drugs, which may also be life-saving drugs for some people, and the ethics, as well as the pros and cons, of using them.

  • Martial arts, Chinese mythology, and bicycle racing are all compelling subjects with lots of fans -- is it a good thing to have them all so important in this story, or too much of a good thing? 

  • How does the China that Phoenix experiences compare with the one you have read about, seen in movies or TV travel shows, or perhaps visited? 

Book details

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