01 December, 2020

[Review] Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Cover image from the goodreads website.

Series or Stand Alone: Rise of the Empress Duology #2
Release Date: 6 November, 2018
Publisher: Philomel Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
Genre: Folklore/Fantasy/Asian Fantasy/Legends/Fairy Tale Retellings
ISBN: 9781524738310
Edition: Hardback (available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook)
Rating: ★★
Review Written: 6 August, 2020
Warnings: Death, Mild Sexual Scenes, Violence
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.

Fans of Stealing Snow, Red Queen, and The Wrath and the Dawn will hungrily devour this page-turning read.

See more by Julie C. Dao at her website.
I ordered this book from my library's system shortly after finishing the first book Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. To read my review on it, check here.

The second part of the Rise of the Empress duology, Kingdom of the Blazing Pheonix follows the next generation of characters. Our main character is Jade, the daughter of the late Lihua, who was sent off to a monastery at the age of three. For the last 15 years, her identity has been kept mostly a secret (her nursemaid and the abbess knew of course), but now she's being called home by Xifeng.

Things aren't as straightforward as it seems however. Xifeng has yet to produce a male heir for Emperor Jun, though it's questionable to how much she's tried. It's soon apparent that Xifeng has been poisoning Jun for the past 15 years to gain more power for herself and the Serpent God. She also attempts to poison Jade for daring to question her about the care of Jun, though it backfires a bit due to the item being used one of Lihua.

Jade instead sees a vision of what her stepmother does in the dark (aka eating the hearts of young maidens) and overhears her say that she wants hers. Terrified, Jade plots to run and reunite the 5 sacred relics from each of the kingdoms with her nursemaid and the help of Shiro's now grown son Koichi. Sadly her nursemaid, Amah, is caught by Xifeng and ends up killed (with her heart eaten). Wren, Amah's granddaughter, still helps Jade escape, and the trio set off to hunt down the relics.

Their first stop is to the Tengu clearing from many years previously, however they set off here unintentionally since Xifeng sends her soldiers (aka snakes she's birthed over the years) to try and hunt Jade down. Kang, Xifeng's faithful eunuch and unspeakable horror of a servant to the Serpent God, is tasked with hunting Jade down and bringing her heart back to Xifeng. Because that's not creepy at all right? It is a question of what Kang would have done with her body, but I digress.

A hearty road trip ensues with Jade reclaiming the first relic fairly quickly, only to be chased by Kang and company shortly after. She and her companions reach the sand kingdom of the Serpent God (former kingdom) and go searching for two relics. Instead they find a nomad named Ming (spoiler alert: it's Wei) and his ghostly companion Lu (as in Jade's older half-brother Lu). The pair save our heroes from dying of dehydration and starvation before promptly sending them off to face the horse maze of doom. Sadly, trickery is afoot and Jade is separated from her companions...except now Lu is her companion. Still with me so far?

Lu and Jade complete the maze, rescue the Katmansu relic from where the Serpent God stole it, and escape off to the mountains of Dagova on the turtle guardian of Katmansu. Personally, I really enjoyed the outwitting of a god who seemed determined to corrupt young maidens to his own bidding. Reaching the mountains via underground river that is mostly poisoned (thanks to the Serpent God, good job buddy), Jade is caught by the Crimson Army. The Crimson Army is a group of mercenary women who protect women throughout this world (good on them, honestly this world seems terrible to women. Go forth and destroy the patriarchy ladies). Unimpressed with Jade at first, the Army agrees to trust her if Jade can retrieve the sword of Tam Lu (my mind kept autocorrecting this to Tam Lin which is definitely a different fairytale) from inside a giant Carp. Because honestly, this is probably not the weirdest thing in the story thus far.

Obviously our heroine prevails, sorting out the correct sword and is shortly thereafter reunited with her fellow travelers who had ended up in the mountains from the earlier chaos. Lu and Jade realize that they're siblings, and it's finally time to get down to business to defeat the Empress (please feel free sing that to the tune of defeat the Huns from Mulan). All in all, they must return the relics to the Tengu clearing in the Great Forest in hopes of calling forth the Heavenly Army to wipe out Xifeng.

They return with the Crimson Army in tow, and though they try to plan for everything, Xifeng is still waiting on them. Ming, who has also joined them on this venture, disappears after entering the forest. Jade, trying to reconnect all the artifacts, attempts to do this, however due to some unfortunate events that result in the second death of her mother earlier in the book (yeah, Lihua came back as a dragon? idk either guys); Jade falls under the spell of the apple that grows as the last relic. Instead she takes a bite, and I'm sure you know where this heading since we are in a Snow White retelling. That's right, Jade drops like she's dead and everyone is in despair, especially since Ming (now Wei) is reunited with Xifeng and seems to be very bewitched.

Spoiler Alert: Wei kills Xifeng. Straight up stabs her through the chest in the most over the top letting go of unrequited love I have ever seen. And honestly, it was glorious. Also Koichi and Jade are a thing, and of course she rises from the dead, but not before her brother Lu (remember Lu? The ghost?) reunites all the relics and summon forth the Dragon Gods themselves. A hot battle ensues with all the snakes from the past 18 years, resulting in the death of the Serpent God and the rest of them returning to the heavens after destroying a fair amount of the forest.

In the end, Jade rises from the dead thanks to true love's kiss, becomes the Empress that the country needed, and started them on the road to repair.

There were a few pacing issues within this novel, it was terribly slow in the beginning with Jade halfway catching on but not really. Overall, I think this novel is well done and I'm looking forward to reading the 2.5 installment when it comes in later this month.

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