4 stars · 5 stars · book review

review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

★★★★★ // 4.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads review

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“A woman who can think for herself delves beneath the surface. Pulling out the threads of another’s story and applying them to your own life is the mark of a queen.”

I loved this book wow. The only reason I could rate this book lower is because there wasn’t enough of it and it ended too soon. I’m SHOOK. This book is like a call-out post for all the problems I have for mainstream YA fantasy. Julie brought her A-game here! And I was living for it!

Pros:
1.  Jade is so honorable. This is some God-tier levels of E. Asian honor at play. Goody-good characters can indeed be GOOD, INTERESTING, AND COMPLEX characters, y’all. When people say it ain’t so, it’s like they’re saying Superman is boring because he’s good lol way to erase nuance. There are ways it can be done, and Julie Dao has done it and done it well. Jade might be in the running for best girl of 2018 for me.

Jade is a fucking boss at being an ally to other women (unlike Xifeng). Even when the Crimson warriors are like “we’re down for murder and that’s our income and we wanna get justice and deal death to those who deserve it,” Jade is like “I don’t presume to judge you.” It’s true, the Crimson warriors are doing good in their eyes. They give women refuge in a world that rarely gives them opportunities to rise from being victims of abuse. I love that they accept all sorts of women, but not everyone would find them dealing out justice on their terms and only their terms palatable because of how easily Motives for Murder Can Go Awry.

What I love about what Julie has done here is that she has Jade recognize that the Crimson warriors are women who need to take back power for themselves. At the same time Jade doesn’t have to agree with the methods because her experience as a woman is not universal, so who is she to judge? It’s a better exploration of female allyship than “it’s feminist because girls can murder people too” which is so often done in YA fantasy I just want to choke. (To clarify, my issue is with HOW female allyship and feminism is written not that it is written in the first place.)

Jade is essentially like “My name is Inigo Montoya. You’re killing my father. Prepare to die” at Xifeng in the beginning. Jade cares™ so much about her people. This book is all about telling us that getting the crown doesn’t mean squat if you’re just going to put the kingdom through the same old BS but with a fake-woke coat of paint on top to make it look new. I love that Jade embodied this so well because I’m just *tired* af of incompetent teens running kingdoms into the ground in YA like… this girl Jade gets it. She hires advisors, funds infrastructure and maintains and starts new cultural traditions to usher peace and good relations with the neighboring countries, which are now all independent because she’s not about the Empress life.

2.  The love interest, Koichi, has dwarfism and Jade is like if you ever talk badly about yourself I’ll mess with your shoes. The romance was very minimal in the book, but Koichi and Jade are too darling I can’t help but like them. Both Koichi and his dad have dwarfism, and they’re handshum and charismatic characters. I don’t often see dwarfism being discussed in books, and this is probably the first time I’ve seen it in YA.

3. All the fairytales, especially the Weaver and the Cowherd reference in the Crane Cloak quest. I kept notes of what the fairytales included were and also the relics and moral lessons related to them. The fairytales feel very familiar, though I’m not 100% what inspirations for them are besides the Weaver and the Cowherd and it might very well be that some are just original tales Julie came up with some established tales blended in.

  • The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns – Apple | Ask for help
    • Not a theory on my part but just interesting notes – the origin of the apple is from Central Asia and China
    • “Apples are a victim of their own genetic creativity, a characteristic known to botanists as extreme heterozygosity. This ensures that an apple grown from seed won’t be anything like its parents.” – History of the Forbidden Fruit
    • I’m not sure if Julie went that deep into Jade’s character concept, but I love that Jade wanted to do better than her parents and relinquish her role as the Empress.
  • Weaver Girl and Cowherd – Feather cloak | Keep your word
  • The Kingdom fo the Blazing Phoenix – Desert Rose | Resourcefulness
  • Tu Lam – Silver Arrow sword  | To know the people of your land
    • I got serious Date Masamune vibes because it’s well known he was interested in cookery. The general format of Tu Lam is a pretty common one where there are 3 kids who are competing for something and the one with the most practical and least flashy solution to the problem presented wins – which is ironic because Date Masamune was flashy af.
  • The Fish Bone Cinderella (?) – Fish Bone | Have faith

Other pros:

  • A Wei redemption I didn’t know I wanted.
  • Amah had every opportunity to trash talk Xifeng and she took all of them.
  • An Accurate Example of the Badass Asian grandma in action.
  • Accurate depictions of how BOSS Asian women can be and calls ppl tf out for thinking theyre frail and helpless in text.
  • Julie definitely saw Princess Mononoke and got inspiration for this.
  • Since PrincessMononoke is my fave Ghibli movie, I approve of the creative choices in this book.

Cons:

1. It was just so short aks;dfajkl.

I wish we had more time in this world to explore the different countries and learn more about the lore. Also there was not enough Crimson warrior women content. I’m they came back in this installment, but I had expected the warriors to be more present throughout.

This is a rare instance where stretching the plot out into more books would be beneficial in a YA fantasy. There’s just so much left unexplored.

2. The last-minute Xifeng character development – mostly because we were on a time crunch. Tbh I was always confused as to how much free will XF had. In the end I think she boiled down to a fake-woke mouth piece for the Serpent God, even if her actions were her own – they still fed into his BS. And when XF was called out for it all she could do was cry and say “I wanted to choose you Wei” when she was like “bye, Wei” in the last book. LOL ok.

3. The lack of breathing room in between Jade finding each relic. I’m thankful they glossed over the days where nothing happened, but the pacing felt very reminicscent of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, which was very much an adventure book too, since one scene would have a rise in tension and never let us get back to neutral with how often it threw in plot development.

Nitpick: Similar problem to my nitpick with Guma’s name. Some characters refer to Amah as “Amah” when she is indeed NOT THEIR AMAH. Amah isn’t her name, like how Guma shouldn’t have been Guma’s name. It would be more apt for someone who isn’t the grandchild/ward of this Amah to refer to her as Jade/Wren’s Amah, not simply Amah. At the same time I suppose adult characters could also play along with Jade and call her Amah “Amah” too because she’s a child (teen, but like a child to the elders always).

Overall, I honestly loved this WAY more than FOTL. It is essentially a direct response to XF’s chicanery in book 1 with our cinnaroll Jade leading the way. I can see there being a split in the readership, with people who loved FOTL disliking Blazing Phoenix and people who disliked FOTL LOVING Blazing Phoenix. I’m in the latter category, but regardless I believe Julie has done an excellent job of treating her inspirations respectfully because I know there were *some* people (you know who you are) saying she couldn’t write a Chinese-influenced world because she wasn’t Chinese??? Keep that gatekeeping to yourself because it’s not a cute look, boo. The themes in Blazing Phoenix are much stronger than in FOTL, and you can really see the growth in Julie’s writing if you compare the two.

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