ARC Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #2
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: November 6th 2018
*I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “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.”

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Julie C. Dao concludes her Rise of the Empress duology with Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Filled with enchanting storytelling and a likable cast of characters, this companion novel is sure to please fans of the first book. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, readers witnessed the downfall of the protagonist Xifeng as she embraced the darkness within. In this follow-up novel, years have passed since Xifeng has become Empress. The empire has suffered under a cruel regime and many of the people have become restless. When Jade, the heir to the Empire, is summoned back home by her stepmother Xifeng, she discovers that evil can take many forms. Xifeng is not the doting wife and stepmother she pretends to be and when Jade uncovers the truth about how Xifeng has been able to hold on to power, she is forced to flee. In order to save her people and regain her rightful place as heir, Jade will have to journey far and overcome challenges meant to crush even the strongest of people.

Jade is just shy of eighteen years old. Having spent the majority of her life in a monastery, Jade’s understanding of the world has been limited. Though she has grown up far from the luxuries befitting her rank, her ignorance is a privilege in itself. Jade has always wanted to forget who she really is, to make vows and become a monk. When she arrives in the Imperial City and sees how much her people are suffering, she is forced to confront the world she’s spent her whole life hiding from. I loved that Jade’s journey isn’t just an outward one, that she must reflect on who she’s been and who she will choose to be. For people like Xifeng, who only see others as pawns in their own story, having friends and family is an easy way to be manipulated. For Jade, the allies she surrounds herself with become her greatest strength. From her surrogate grandmother Amah, who raised her when she was cast aside, to Amah’s granddaughter Wren, who exhibits a very different form of strength than Jade, these relationships are what keep Jade from being entice by the same kind of temptations that Xifeng has fallen prey to. The strongest influences in Jade’s life have always been women, including the mother she lost at such a young age and are the reason Jade, while not necessarily the strongest or bravest character, is able to challenge someone as powerful as Xifeng.

Xifeng is one of my favorite literary characters because she is allowed to want power for power’s sake. While I would never personally side with Xifeng, at the end of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, I could not help but root for her just a little. The biggest challenge with this novel was shifting my own perspective. Seeing Xifeng not just as a ambitious young woman who did everything in her power to get what she wanted, but as an antagonist to Jade, a woman who took her mother’s place and who has continued to poison the people in order to hold on to power. One of my favorite elements of the novel was the importance of folktales. Jade grew up hearing Amah tell her stories and though she didn’t fully appreciate what Amah was trying to teach her, these tales become the building blocks of Jade’s journey.

If you’re looking for a unique take on fairytale retellings, Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress duology is a must. She’s written a vibrant world with characters you can both love and love to hate.

4/5

★★★★

Can’t-Wait Wednesday: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao


Can’t-Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Tressa @ Wishful Endings where bloggers share which upcoming releases they’re most looking forward to. Join us every Wednesday and watch your TBR list multiply. Cover is linked to Goodreads.

I enjoyed Julie C. Dao’s debut Forest of a Thousand Lanterns so much. I loved that we got to embrace a character who gave into the darkness inside her while simultaneously keeping readers engaged. I’m really looking forward to Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, where our villainess from the previous novel is challenged by the protagonist from this one. I also got some surprise mail a couple of days ago and am now in possession of the paperback edition of Forest with its cover makeover and an ARC of this title. I’m so excited!

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 width=Title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #2
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: November 6, 2018

      “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.”

Are you participating in Can’t-Wait Wednesday or Waiting on Wednesday? Is this book on your TBR? Be sure to leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll visit!

The Friday 56: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

The Friday 56The Friday 56 is a weekly blog meme hosted by Freda’s Voice. Join us every Friday and share an excerpt from a book you’ve been reading.

Rules:

*Grab a book, any book.
*Turn to page 56 or 56% in your eReader.
*Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grab you.
*Post it.
*Add your (url) post here in Linky. Add the post url, not your blog url. It’s that simple.

**Be sure to leave a link to your Friday 56 post in the comments!**

“…they’re the deadliest killers on the continent…It’s said that they paint their mouths bright red with blood when they go to war. That’s why they’re called the Crimson Army.”

I read an ARC of Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, so didn’t get a chance to share an excerpt from it at the time. I finally got my hands on a final copy, so now I get to share this amazing debut with everyone. As far as favorite deadly, yet intriguing female characters go, Xifeng is near the top. I loved reading her journey into villainy. You can read my review here. Cover is linked to Goodreads.

From the Goodreads Synopsis:

      “An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.
      Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?
      Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: October 10th 2017

      “An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.
      Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?
      Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

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Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns delights with its dark imagery and compelling protagonist. Raised under the watchful eye of her stringent aunt, Xifeng has been raised to believe she is destined for more than her humble roots. Fate has foretold that one day she will become the Empress of Feng Lu and Xifeng will do whatever it takes to make this come true. When an opportunity to go to the Imperial City presents itself, Xifeng takes hold of it. But her lofty ambitions may cost her the only bright spot she’s had in her life. Inside the Imperial Palace, Xifeng discovers that she isn’t the only one who seeks to be Empress. She finds herself in the midst of a power struggle and the new target of one who will also do anything to take her place next to the Emperor of Feng Lu.

Xifeng is one of the most complex and interesting protagonists I’ve come across. Her beauty has set her apart since her birth. She’s used to being flattered, being on the receiving end of lingering looks, but also being resented by those who can only dream of being so beautiful. Her aunt Guma has fed into her vanity, teaching her that her beauty can be used as a weapon to get what she wants. Her lessons have taught Xifeng to tie her self-worth to her beauty and throughout the novel, we see the lengths she will go to to keep it. At the beginning of the novel, Xigeng is equally eager yet afraid to embrace her destiny. There is a darkness inside her that she has kept hidden, but with each passing day, the evil inside her grows stronger, calling her to take what rightfully belongs to her.

For years, Xifeng’s only refuge in the world was her childhood sweetheart Wei. She has sought to forget about her aunt’s prediction in his arms, but can’t help but hold herself back from giving him her entire heart. Wei wasn’t a character that I felt particularly strongly about. He often puts Xifeng on a pedestal and she grows frustrated with him for not seeing her for who she really is. Any darkness he sees in her is because of her aunt and not a part of Xifeng herself. I actually found myself leaning toward another love interest for Xifeng. I won’t say who it is for spoiler’s sake. There’s no promise of a happy ending for Xifeng in this series and there very likely won’t be, but I still found this newer romantic relationship to be entirely captivating.

Aside from Xifeng, the women in the Imperial Palace are the most compelling characters. The current Empress was not seen fit to rule with her kind heart, but she has other strengths that those around her underestimate. I really enjoyed Empress Lihua’s relationship with Xifeng, as the former desires a daughter and the latter a mother. Lady Sun is another player in this political world that Xifeng must outwit if she has any hope of becoming Empress, but the concubine is both ruthless and powerful. Her personal war with Xifeng will push the protagonist to her limits, but Lady Sun has no idea the dark power lurking underneath Xifeng.

Though Forest of a Thousand Lanterns starts off a little slow, it isn’t long before I was wholly absorbed into Dao’s world. Xifeng’s descent and transformation into villainess is a strangely satisfying journey that has me desperate for more.

4/5

★★★★