Author: Julie C. Dao
Genres: Fantasy, Fairytale retelling
Pub date: Nov. 2018 (read Nov. 2018 on Audible)
Series: Rise of the Empress #2
Well, this was a huge disappointment after the surprisingly good first book, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. I was not expecting to love the first book because I thought it was a Snow White retelling, and I’m not that into fairytale retellings. But it ended up being a retelling of the evil queen in snow white – her slow descent into evil and how she became to be so obsessed with beauty. I do love a good villain origin story, and this one was an Asian-inspired retelling full of all kinds of nastiness, so I thought it was a great twist of the classic fairytale.
In contrast, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix was the boring Snow White retelling I thought I was getting in the first book. Honestly, you don’t even really need to have read the first book to read this one. The first book is told entirely from Xifeng’s point of view (evil queen), but this book is told from Jade’s point of view (snow white). In this book Xifeng is basically evil incarnate and Jade is the good girl out to save Feng Lu. It made me wonder why Dao spent so much time on Xifeng’s characterization in the first book if she was just going to abandon her in this book. I actually didn’t have a problem with this being a Snow White retelling, it just would have been so much more interesting if it was told from Xifeng’s point of view.
But Xifeng has basically lost her humanity in this book, so instead we get to listen to Jade’s inner monologue for 300 pages. Jade is the daughter of the late Empress Li-Wa (sorry, listened to this on Audiobook and can’t find the spelling), who Xifeng usurped in the last book. Xifeng didn’t want any of Li-Wa’s children around, so she sent Jade off to live in a monastery, thinking she would bear the Emperor new male heirs, and more or less forgot about her. However, Xifeng has been unable to produce an heir and calls Jade to the royal palace.
Up to this point, Jade had no idea that she was the lost princess, the true heir to the throne. So she struggles with suddenly being Royalty, but becomes indignant when she arrives at the palace and discovers how much her people have been suffering under Xifeng. She discovers that Xifeng is a servant of the Serpent God and has been killing women and eating their hearts to remain young, so Jade sets off on a quest to collect the dragon relics so that she can raise the lost dragon army (she is apparently the daughter of the Dragon Lord). She teams up with Ren, a young girl and warrior from the palace, and Koichi (again, not sure of spelling), who is a little person and Shiro’s son.
From there, this becomes a classic kind of fantasy quest novel. Jade, Ren, and Koichi travel around Feng Lu collecting the relics, hiding from the Serpent God and Kong, who is now Xifeng’s hunter. They meet a number of people and ghosts who help them along their journey and learn all kinds of stuff about these individuals, but honestly, I can’t remember half of it now or what the importance was, but I’m sure they would have been somewhat shocking twists had I cared at all about Jade.
That was probably my biggest complaint about this book. I just didn’t care about Jade. Okay, I was pretty into the fact that the main romantic relationship in this book involves a little person, but otherwise I just found Jade such a do-gooder that it was boring. She supposedly doesn’t know she’s a princess, but as soon as she finds out, she’s suddenly like the ultimate philanthropist and all obsessed with ending the suffering of her people. She didn’t care at all about the empire before finding out she was a princess and now she’s all incensed about it and has to like swoop in and save the world. She’s constantly trying to be this good, noble person and it was just sooo boring. Like she tries to save Ren from having to work by making her a fake handmaiden, and Ren is just like, “B*tch, don’t feel bad for me, I could kick your ass and I’m not too proud to work.” And then Jade kept trying to send Ren and Koichi away cause she just couldn’t bear for something bad to happen to them. Like, get over yourself Jade, you would literally be dead 8 times without them and this quest belongs to them just as much as it does you. Just because you’re the princess, you’re no more entitled to take down Xifeng than Ren, whose grandmother was murdered by her.
So yeah, mostly I thought Jade was just like, super boring, and I didn’t care at all about the relics or their quest to find them. Honestly, this whole book felt like it was just a lead up to the real plot. I was interested in Xifeng and the havoc she was wreaking on the empire, and I did want to see a showdown between Xifeng and Jade, but I didn’t care at all about the quest and the relics. It just all felt like filler to me and overall I found the plot disappointing. Plus, like where were the seven dwarves? If you’re going to do a Snow White retelling you should at least commit to the dwarves.
And finally, I really didn’t like the ending. The entire book is narrated by Jade, but then when she goes into her enchanted apple sleep it gets narrated by like 3 other characters in her absence and it just felt really disjointed. Plus, Dao tries to tie the ending back to Xifeng’s story with a few random twists relating to the first book. I think she was trying to make us empathize with Xifeng again, but it just didn’t work at all for me. You can’t have her be this psycho, evil queen for 90% of the book and then try and make us care about her again.
So overall, I was really not impressed with this book. I was so excited to read it and I thought the story had so much potential. I just wish it had been from Xifeng’s point of view. What is Jade like from her perspective? I don’t want to totally discount the book though because it is possible this has some important cultural aspects that I’m just missing as a white person. I also just finished The Poppy War, which is a historical fantasy about China that I’ve heard holds a lot of meaning for Chinese People. This said though, I enjoyed The Poppy War a lot more than this, even though I probably didn’t pick up a lot of the nuances that people more familiar with the culture and history would.