If you’re new to this Julie C. Dao series, let’s get you up to speed.
Rise of the Empress begins with Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an origin story of the Evil Queen. It centers on Xifeng, an extraordinarily beautiful village girl who fulfills her ambition of becoming Empress of Feng Lu using her deadly brilliance and gift with blood magic. This is followed by Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, a Snow White retelling focusing on Xifeng’s stepdaughter, Princess Jade, who goes on a mythical journey to summon the old gods of Feng Lu and overthrow her stepmother’s oppressive rule.
Song of the Crimson Flower takes place eight years after Jade is crowned Empress. Separating itself from the western tale of Snow White, Song of the Crimson Flower is based on the Vietnamese story of The Ugly Boatman. Here, we travel with two all-new characters, Lan and Bao, as they find their place in the newly-emancipated kingdoms of Feng Lu.
Foremost, a love story
Lan is the sheltered daughter of a royal minister. She’s hopelessly smitten with a mysterious boatman who rows down the river to her window every night and plays her music on the flute. However, when she learns that the true identity of her boatman is Bao, an orphan boy from her childhood who has become the physician’s apprentice, she cruelly rejects him. (There’s more than one reason why she does this, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why!)
Hurt and angry, Bao sails to the river witch with the intention of asking her to erase his memories of Lan. The river witch sees something else in Bao, however, and she curses him. It’s a cookie-cutter hex - he must find someone to love him before the next full moon, or his spirit will be bound to his flute forever.
What follows is a quest across the continent to search for a way to break the spell. It bears saying that you can guess early on what kind of story this will be, so you can also predict the ending. But considering how Lan deeply regrets how she treated Bao and how Bao similarly regrets falling in love with Lan, the awkwardness of this couple’s dynamic turns out to be what makes the journey entertaining.
A milder sequel
Song of the Crimson Flower fits nicely in the world carved out by the first two books. Princess Jade is now Empress Jade, and eight years have passed since the epic showdown of the gods and Xifeng’s fifteen-year reign of terror.
Given this, “Song” treads a much milder path than the heavily morally ambiguous themes that kicked us off in “Forest”, and the stakes are lower here than they were for Jade and her friends in “Kingdom”. Fans of Xifeng’s antiheroine story (which I love to describe as an Asian version of The Other Boleyn Girl) might be disappointed in “Song”, but I think that a run-of-the-mill love story makes sense in a stable, post-war Feng Lu. Not all stories have to be about making or breaking the world!
This book is very much one you can read at leisure; character interactions and plot points give you incentive to keep turning the page, but it’s also easy to put the book down and come back to it tomorrow night like savoring a long bedtime story. Meanwhile, Dao’s prose remains elegant and formal, the better to transport you to a completely different time and place.
A look at family and female friendships
Female relationships have always been a strong theme in the Rise of the Empress series. We explore the bittersweet relationship between Xifeng and Empress Lihua in “Forest”, Jade and Wren’s heart-sisterhood in “Kingdom”, and Lan’s coming of age as she bonds with the women she meets on her travels. The influences of her companions, Wren and Lady Yen, turn Lan from a lovesick girl looking out of her window to a woman who jumps right into crap without hesitation (perhaps literally!) and is willing to wade through it to make things right.
In contrast to the first two heroine-centered books, I feel that the story of Song of the Crimson Flower rests more on Bao’s shoulders. Despite Empress Jade’s redistribution of power among the Five Kingdoms, a territory called the Gray City persists in dabbling in the illegal poppy drug trade and threatens to stir up political conflict. The revelation that Bao may have family ties to both the river witch who cursed him and the brazen leader of the Gray City puts him in a unique place to make decisions, and it’s interesting to see his character expand and react to these new responsibilities.
And speaking of family, that’s another broad theme that the book explores. Bao faces the question, are you less of a worthy human being if you didn’t know your family? Or is not knowing your family preferable to finding out that you’re related to people who have done deplorable things?
A single, cohesive world of stories
Rise of the Empress is a breathtaking, thought-provoking series from start to finish. We entered Feng Lu through a tunnel painted in shades of dark ambition and diamond-hard ruthlessness in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and we exit with Song of the Crimson Flower, which feels fluffy and daylit. The entire trilogy displays the width and breadth of Dao’s skill as a storyteller, yet the stories are so distinct there’s no doubt they belong in one cohesive world.
Feng Lu is a fascinating setting with the potential to yield more rich stories that bring Asian culture to the forefront. And if there’s a fourth or fifth installment, I’d gladly make the trip back.