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

This review contains spoilers, please be advised and look out for the spoiler warning. 

Status: Finished Reading (29 November 2018)

Edition: Amazon Kindle

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Image Source: Goodreads

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was one of the best books I read this year. It’s no surprise that the sequel was one I awaited with bated breath. The anticipation process was a nerve-wracking one – on the one hand I would once again be immersed into this beautiful world that Dao has created for her readers; on the other, with Jade as a protagonist, there was a good chance that one of my favourite fictional women, Xifeng’s, reign was going to come to an end. It was an ending that was bittersweet, because I was both dreading it yet eager to see how the book would unfold.

I would say, the book met some of my expectations, but failed to hit the mark with others.

Let me start off with the things that worked for me:

I think, as usual, Dao’s world-building is absolutely extraordinary. The prose brings to life such vivid imagery of the environment the characters are in – I wouldn’t even say that they’re leaping off the pages. Rather, every page turn feels like you’ve immersed yourself in their realm.

I also enjoyed the overall concept of the story. The idea of there being a quest was pretty intriguing when interwoven into the Snow White myth. Moreover, I enjoyed how different Xifeng was in this. No less powerful as I remembered her, but definitely much more different.

However, I think, these things weren’t quite enough to hold the story together. For one, it felt incredibly rushed. I believe this was partially because of the approach to fantasy that this book had compared to the first book. Forest had magic in a rather understated manner. It was subtle and ran beneath the framework of a plot that otherwise centred around cunning, wit, and court politics. Kingdom, on the other hand, was a full fledged fantasy epic. There were adventures and a heroine facing obstacles, which felt like it was a lot more to take on in the middle of the series. The intensity with which each of the missions and myths were described felt diluted with the rushed pace it had to adapt.

[SPOILER WARNING]

For me, a story is as strong as its protagonist. If I can’t cheer for the main character, then I have a hard time enjoying a book. In this case, that was my biggest concern. Jade felt too perfectly constructed a character. When she was first introduced, I was a little bit excited. She possessed a naivety,  a lack of real-world experience that made her far too idealistic. If I had to draw a comparison to the real world, I would compare her to those people who frequently complain about the government and wish to remove themselves from a flawed society without taking responsibility for the power they hold to become vehicles of change. She is almost ignorant and dismissive of what happens in her kingdom. She doesn’t know much about suffering. I was hopeful to see how she would learn things.

But this is never addressed. I assumed this would be something she would come to terms with later but she never does – her idealism is rewarded with fruition, which just did not make sense to me in a series that otherwise began functioning on a morally grey ground. I did not quite understand how she succeeded in doing everything she set out to do – especially after taking the throne. I thought, at least, her death would bring about a sense of balance alongside Xifeng’s – a stark innocence vs a stark monstrosity. But she ended up coming back to life. The happily every after felt surreal because it seemed impossible for everything to be sorted out so cleanly.

Another thing that greatly bothered me was the end that Xifeng got. I was quite pleased to see that she wasn’t dumbed down to make for an easier villain to defeat – that was my biggest fear for her in this book. It was nice to see that she had defied the Serpent God and decided to take more for herself. But what I don’t understand is how she, then, did not get to partake in the epic battle at the end? I understand Dao wanted to give her a human end because she was human – an ending that might’ve fit the tone of the first book. However, with the grand scale that Kingdom shifted into, it seemed anticlimactic and almost insulting that she was taken out so easily. The fact that it was at the hands of an ex-lover was worse. It wasn’t even her stepdaughter and biggest contender who defeated her – it was an unimportant man from her past.

Overall, I think the downfall of this book was the massive shift in sub-genre, and subsequently, a grand scheme that became far too difficult to execute in only a duology (and just the second half, at that). There was a lot of raw potential – with Xifeng, with Jade, with Wren, and with Xifeng and Jade’s relationship. Unfortunately, while the world remained rich and vibrant and fascinating, the characters fell flat. There was a risk of being cliche, right down to the Voldemort-esque dialogues from Xifeng (including a line eerily similar to Deathly Hallows) and the “you and I are not so different” trope. While cliches work great in fantasy, especially with retellings, they just weren’t strong or refreshing enough to hold themselves up this time.

I give this book only three stars. A lot of great potential that could’ve been executed better. I will still say, though, that Dao is a great author. Forest proved this to me and I have not changed my mind about that. She has a way with stories and characters that I really wish to see more of. Perhaps this time it did not work out as planned, but I have no doubt that we will see great things from her in the future!

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