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.
Anti-heroines are my thing, folks, and this book delivered. There’s just so much that’s unique to appreciate about this book: the characters, the setting, the plot. This also was a very intelligent book. To do a good anti-heroine story, you need to get the sort of boxes female main characters tend to fit into, and Julie C. Dao gets it. This also felt like a YA fantasy that could easily be a crossover into an older age range. I just feel like a lot of books, especially YA fantasies, I’ve been reading lately have blurred together a little, but this one really didn’t.
Let’s start with Xifeng, the main character. She would not have been an easy character to write well. Too far to the nice side, and the whole book falls apart. Too far to the evil side, and the reader loses all sympathy. But she was written so well . When you first meet her, she’s not a bad person, but her descent into darkness was just… *chef’s kiss*. Her entire character really examined how the focus on her beauty as her only power really warped her sense of self and her priorities. But she’s not just a victim of circumstance. She chooses power, she chooses darkness, but it’s in a world that didn’t offer her much else. There was a part that was urging her on towards evil because I finally wanted everyone to realize what this intelligent and disciplined girl could do. God, I can’t wait to see what Julie C. Dao does with Snow White.
Next, the setting. I’ll admit, it’s not the strongest, most atmospheric setting I’ve ever read, but it’s still very distinctive. There are clear linguistic links between proper names from different places, and the visual descriptions of buildings and clothing and those sorts of things were very rich. And, yes, part of this is just me going thank God, not another generic quasi-European fantasy world, but I also feel like the world building was strong in its own right. (European-based fantasy is fine with me as long as there’s a specific sense of place, which a lot of time there is not. There was a sense of place here.)
And the plot was never what I expected it to be. It was a lot slower and more pensive than I expected, and, while that did mean I wasn’t always as absorbed in the story as I’ve been in some other stories, I think it worked for the more political drama that was going on in the book. Xifeng’s talent is really at manipulating people and situations, which makes sense with the pace, even if I sometimes felt it could have been a little faster.
Just, overall, I’m really picky about villain-type novels, especially if the villain is female, because I feel you need to be really aware of all sorts of gender politics, which this book is. Julie C. Dao turns the stereotypical bitchy, witchy stepmother into a fully formed tragic hero in the Shakespearean sense, which is no small feat. Kudos, madam, kudos.
(Also, am I the only one who thought I caught some Phantom of the Opera references here and there? Underground cave with water, and quotes like
“Turn your face from the world’s apple-blossom fragility and embrace the boundless night.”
Music of the Night much?)