ARC Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix {Julie Dao} - Snow White but with more dragon lords

If you missed my review of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, check it out! It's a fabulous villain origin story inspiredy by Chinese mythology. Today we tackle the sequel/companion, which didn't work for me as well.
title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
author: Julie C. Dao
pages: 384
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 2/5
genre: Fantasy
topics: Fairy tale, Chinese-inspired setting, Magic, Mythology 
CW: violence, murder

2 stars - It was okay

KINGDOM OF THE BLAZING PHOENIX is such an interesting sequel to FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, because they’re not written as a standard duology. They’re a Before and After. An origin story of the villain, and then the rise of the hero. In FOREST we see Xifeng become in the Evil Queen. In KINGDOM, Xifeng has reached the height of her power, and now Jade, the exiled princess, is our heroine.

After loving and rooting for Xifeng (yes, even though she was descending into depravity), I wasn’t sure how I’d feel rooting for the girl who was meant to depose her. But Julie does a fantastic job of setting up the events of KINGDOM in FOREST. You know Xifeng is going to go too far. You know she’s going to have to be stopped. And at the beginning of KINGDOM, you see how her ruthlessness and ambition has made life hellish for the people of the Great Forest. Ending her rein of terror is necessary because of who she is now, even if you remember the girl she was.

Julie gives us a sympathetic heroine in Jade. Seeing Xifeng from her perspective, you can’t help but empathize with her. Xifeng replaced Jade’s mother. She bamboozled Jade’s father into sending Jade to live in exile. But Jade has risen to her circumstances. She’s made a home in the convent where she was exiled as a child. She’d actually be rather happy becoming a nun and living out the rest of her days in peace, but everyone else has these plans for her that were made without her consent and against her wishes. Though she was raised like a peasant, she’ll always be a princess.

That’s never more clear than when Xifeng summons her to the palace and tries to poison her, kicking off a series of events that forces Jade to decide: run and have her quiet life, or sacrifice her peace to save the realm. I’ll admit, it was hard to feel as connected to Jade after the exquisite complexity that was Xifeng. Jade just feels a little bland at first, and very self-righteous. She’s always good and right. But I think that’s just her flaw as a human. There are other characters, like her reluctant friend Wren, who are edgier and call her on some of her tra-la-la idealism. I think Jade comes more into her own personality as the book continues. I was also that kid who was more afraid of getting in trouble than getting hurt, so maybe Jade didn’t bother me as much as she bothered other reviewers, because I could see myself in her.

The plot is a bit uneven. FOREST shined most when Julie began to focus on the claustrophobic court intrigue and social dynamics. KINGDOM starts this way. Jade is insinuated into the palace, and soon discovers that her father has been snowed, young women are disappearing, and everyone is terrified of her stepmother. Because we as reader know exactly what Xifeng is up to, the first palace chapters are heavy and tense with dramatic irony. You just want to grab Jade and tell her to get the hell out of there. She finds out that Xifeng is allied with the Serpent God, who has fought with the ancient Dragon Lords for millennia for control of the Great Forest. The Serpent God was already set up in FOREST, so this was a really cool extension that enlarges the stakes and the world, and makes the Serpent’s role in FOREST make sense.

But that’s where it started to get a little rocky. Jade ends up being forced to flee (in a really amazing action-packed chapter) to collect the items that will free the trapped Dragon Gods. She meets up with one of my favorite FOREST side characters, the ambassador Shiro, and his son, Koichi, both dwarfs and both delightful. Koichi is so full of pleasant banter and softness, I couldn’t help but like him. Then the worldbuilding kicks into high gear. I absolutely loved how Julie drew in the larger mythology of the Great Forest and the lands around it, which we’d already heard of in FOREST. She weaves in traditional folktales, which the characters realize have more truth than they thought. Fairy tales within fairy tales! It was all compelling and intricate and a testament to Julie’s worldbuilding chops.

The problem is that it was all squished into 1/3 of the book. They have four artifacts to get, four lands to travel to, four stories to set up, and it happens in such a small space that, not only does it feel rushed, but Julie has to resort to some deus ex machina to make everything happen in time. So much is so very convenient. It’s really too bad, because the stories and places they investigate are so interesting. I think I would have really loved it if they’d been 2/3 of the book or even 2 books. Instead, it felt like everything was too quick and convenient. You knew they were going to succeed, because there just wasn’t enough time for failures. Julie does bring it back together at the end, and I thought the way she handled the climax and conclusion was really exciting and satisfying. It just would have packed more of a punch if it hadn’t been so hurried.

Overall, I’m still glad I read KINGDOM OF THE BLAZING PHOENIXES. Julie’s prose is masterful. She creates interesting characters and believable relationships. She has a great imagination and obvious gift for weaving fairy tale and folklore into her own worldbuilding. The problem came with the pacing. Forced to constrain her vast imagined world until a small segment of the book, it lost a great deal of its power. The plot became overly convenient and lacked the intricacy and urgency that made FOREST so good. While I didn’t love it like I wanted to, I’ll still be picking up SONG OF THE CRIMSON FLOWER. In it, Julie returns to the Great Forest with a retelling of a Vietnamese folktale. If she can strike a good balance between pacing and world, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

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