Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
by Julie C. Dao
ebook, 384 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Philomel Books (Penguin Random House)
This fairy tale retelling lives in a mystical world inspired by the Far East, where the Dragon Lord and the Serpent God battle for control of the earthly realm; it is here that the flawed heroine of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns finally meets her match. An epic fantasy finale to the Rise of the Empress novels.
Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the empress and set the world right. Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?
Set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world filled with breathtaking pain and beauty, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is filled with dazzling magic, powerful prose, and characters readers won’t soon forget.
Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is one of my anticipated sequel ever. I fell in love (and also terrified) by Xifeng and really enjoyed the world it sets in. But as is the case with many of my anticipated final book in a series, I tend to put off reading them as a) I’m scared it won’t leave up to the previous books and b) I don’t want it to end.
Sets 15 years after the ending in the first book, this book follows the story of our exiled princess Jade as she was summoned to the capital by Xifeng. As Jade is out Snow White to the Evil Queen that is Xifeng, her monologue is totally different from Xifeng. Raised in a monastery, practicing meditation, helping others in need, and being sheltered from the outside world, Jade grew to be a royal with a heart. She cared about the people, but at the same time she’s content with her simple life and scared to claim her birthright. Initially, she resists her family legacy but after learning how she could help her people, she rises up to the challenge.
Many people complained that reading about Jade is boring compared to Xifeng, but I disagree. Yes, it’s different, but it doesn’t made her less interesting. Jade may be a goody-two-shoes, but she also has this darkness inside her. Compared to Xifeng, this darkness was nothing. Both of them are constantly underestimated because they are women, they had to overcome their doubt and prejudice. But at the end of the day, Xifeng’s and Jade’s story run in parallel line: both was descendant of Gods, both have the ambition and will that get them where they are, and both have to give up many things to achieved it. What’s different is the influence they have: Xifeng’s parental figure basically abuses her, exploiting her and treated her like slave while Jade’s parental figure loved her as if Jade was her own. This eventually become a decisive undercurrent in their journey: while Xifeng seeks power to obtain her freedom, Jade seeks power out of love for her friends, family, and people. Instead of becoming her weakness, her love become her strength in the fight against Xifeng.
Wren and Koichi, Jade’s travel companion, are also really fleshed out. At first, Wren despised Jade as her grandmother chose to accompany Jade to the monastery and took care of her for her whole life, instead of taking care of Wren, which was an orphan.* Eventually, Jade and Wren came to an understanding and their bond become sister-like. Wren is spunky, she was driven by vengeance but also loyalty towards Jade. She was the opposite of Jade and they balanced each other really well. Koichi is our prince charming, but also a dwarf. Son of Shiro, many people underestimate him and he become an obvious party for people who are looking for them. He’s smart, has a cheerful personality, but also thoughtful. While he always jokes and quips, he knows to soothes everyone’s fears and doubts, and become a steadfast figure in anchoring Jade.
There are two other supporting characters, which are Ming and Fu, but discussing them would be a spoiler so I’m not going to.
*I was questioning the whole time why they didn’t just bring Wren to the monastery too, but I digress.
“She was thought too gentle to rule, but perhaps they were all wrong,” Fu said. “Perhaps gentleness is necessary to temper a ruler’s ruthlessness, and not weakness at all.”
As a Snow White retelling, we have some familiar elements of Evil Queen, huntsman, poisoned apple, and true love’s kiss. However, the plot largely stand on its own, revolving around the quest of summoning the Dragon Lords by collecting 5 heavenly relics mentioned in the folktale. The folktales themselves are very interesting to read, and surprisingly similar with what I grew up with! As the result, I felt like reading a completely new stories with “borrowed” elements from the fairytale, rather than a retelling.
Many people also complained about the pacing, in which it took around 100 pages before the quest actually started. However, I actually found the first 100 pages are necessary to introduce Jade as a character as well as her relationship with others. Most importantly, it reintroduce us to Xifeng as a queen and how “evil queen” she actually is, but also how she stood up against the Serpent God. Despite not having her POV in this book, we knew her so well from the first book that we could see through her facade.
My only complain is how the quests are too smooth sailing and the ending felt anticlimatic. I liked how they keep their minds to finish the quest instead of helping people in need, which would make them directly exposed to the her forces. But while they did encounter many challenges, it’s not major as other stories would have. Xifeng’s army caught up to her, but they always found miraculous help. The ending did fulfill the image Xifeng always saw on her cards which is fitting, but the fight to beat the Serpent God was unsatisfying.
We all know how the story of Snow White goes, we all know how it ends. In the first book, we saw Xifeng’s descent into darkness and rise as empress. In this book, we saw Jade’s rise against the challenge and claim what’s hers. Full of determined women, heartbreak, and friendship in a world building so rich with folktales, this duology is one of the best I’ve read. Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix can be read as a standalone, but it also serves as a perfect, albeit bittersweet, conclusion to this duology.