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.
This book is not going to be for everyone (is any book?), especially those who need to like the hero(ine) in order to like the book. However, I love me an anti-hero and think there is a severe lack of them in fantasy YA. Xifeng is ruthless, ambitious, cunning — a Slytherin through and through. Viewing love as a weakness, she prizes power over everything else and will stop at nothing to possess it.
She knew her own worth. She would seize her destiny with all the strength and spirit within her, and bend them all to her will: every man kneeling and every woman overshadowed.
I feel like overall, this book is about the currency of female beauty in a patriarchal society. It does not matter how talented or qualified a woman is, it is her looks that will allow her succeed. Xifeng is obsessed with her own beauty, which her Guma has told her will get her on the throne of Feng Lu. Xifeng hates or is jealous of pretty much every woman she meets, but here it doesn’t feel misogynistic. I normally find girl-on-girl hate in YA fiction irritating, but here it has a point: to demonstrate that in this society, it is either them or her, and Xifeng is determined that it be her. In a society where a woman’s looks are valued over everything else she has to offer, Xifeng is determined that she will be the most valued.
If you’re looking for romance, there’s none to be found. Xifeng comments that she loves Wei as much as she can love another, but she is not willing to put aside her ambition to marry him. He refuses to stay by Xifeng’s side while she pursues Emperor Jun. It’s also made very clear that she does not love the Emperor, and views him as a means to an end — being the Empress and being the most powerful woman in Feng Lu. I would go so far to say the Xifeng uses both Wei and the Emperor to achieve her goals — Wei gets her to the palace, and the Emperor gets her to the throne.
I will admit, I did find this book a little on the gory side — I found the murder of a certain character particularly horrific and felt like vomiting while reading (so, I guess well done Julie Dao on excellent writing?) — but it never felt like gore for the sake of gore. It was compelling and well-placed. I also found the pacing to be a little slow — I would say most of the action occurs in the last 100 or so pages.
I was Guma’s, and now you want me to be yours. I have my own soul and my own destiny, and I’m tired of belonging to someone else.
There were seeds sown in this book for a Snow White retelling in the next book and let me tell you, friends: I am here for it! I have a feeling we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how dark and nasty Xifeng can be, and I cannot wait to see what Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix has to offer.