In the second book of the Rise of the Empress duology, author Julie Dao takes readers back to the mystical world of Feng Lu in Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. This rich East Asian inspired fantasy introduces us to eighteen-year-old Princess Jade, who has grown up in seclusion at a distant monastery after being sent away by her father the Emperor and her stepmother Empress Xifeng.
The first novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, tells the story from Xifeng’s perspective as a young girl from humble beginnings and her rise to prominence at the imperial capital. In the sequel, we see the point of view from a more traditional protagonist in Jade. However, in this re-imagining of Snow White, the narrative isn’t just about good triumphing over evil, but emphasizes the power of choice. Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix first begins with the young princess growing up far from the palace in the peace and tranquility of a monastery with her nursemaid when Jade is suddenly called back to the capital.
As she returns to court and meets her father and stepmother, Jade also witnesses the strife and misery that the people of Feng Lu endure. Throughout the whole novel she struggles with the heavy responsibility of being a leader reluctant to lead because she does not want power, only wishing to live as a simple monk. This is an interesting contrast to Xifeng who craved it, believing that being empress was her destiny. After seeing her viewpoint in the first novel, readers can understand why Xifeng would hold contempt for Lihua’s daughter who was born with a legitimate claim to the throne, while she’s had to make terrible sacrifices to attain it. Yet, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix depicts how the quest for power corrupts when it is for self-gain. Jade, having her whole life with women who dedicated themselves in service of others made a huge impact in her world view in comparison to Xifeng’s abusive one with Guma.
As Jade embarks on a quest to defeat her stepmother, we learn a number of mesmerizing magical folktales that aid the heroine in her journey across distant lands. We meet various supernatural creatures, gods, and mortals alike that would make an impact on the princess and the choices she makes. In addition, we also reunited with characters from the first book and discover what happened to them since Xifeng’s reign.
Dao weaves together a beautiful and complicated story filled with perseverance, sacrifice, loss, and tragedy, but also depicts relationships forged out of mutual respect, admiration, and love. While Xifeng grew to be isolated in her path to the throne, Jade gained allies in her determination to do the right thing for the people of Feng Lu. She strives to give those around her the capacity to choose for themselves the kind of life they want to live.
This novel is a worthy follow up to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns as readers are able to get the perspectives of two women determined to live life on their own terms, but in very different ways. In the first book we saw the cutthroat world of palace politics as characters vied for survival. With the sequel we come to understand that with great power comes great responsibility. Xifeng’s rite of passage led her to become a cruel monarch propelled by self-interest while Jade was able to trust others and accept their help in achieving a common goal.
Would highly recommend this for readers who love lush descriptive coming of age stories with a magical bent. Be prepared to get lost in a world filled with dragons, enchanted fruit, powerful totems and talismans, ghosts, and mythical gods.
For more on Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, click HERE.