Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is the sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, completing this duology by Julie C. Dao, whose masterful retelling of Snow White is inspired by East Asian mythology. The first installment followed the rise of the Evil Empress Xifeng, cunning and beautiful, while the sequel shows the empowering journey of Xifeng’s pure-hearted, courageous foil: Princess Jade, the one true heir of Feng Lu.
You can read my GLOWING review of the first installment, a gory and ruthless villain origin story, here.
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.
“Folktales aren’t nonsense . . . “–Princess Jade
Returning to Julie C. Dao’s richly imagined world of Feng Lu was an absolute delight. This time, I was excited to enter the Kingdom of the Great Forest again and also travel through three of the other spectacular, mythologically steeped kingdoms of Feng Lu: from the “vast sea of yellow-green fields” in the Grasslands, to the treacherous sand and wind of Surjalana, to finally the badass mountains of Dagovad. The only thing I loved more than the unforgiving beauty of the elemental lands that lived and breathed through Dao’s descriptions were the unforgettable characters whose thrilling travels we followed.
Princess Jade is the last heir of the Dragon King, and thus the sole rightful ruler of Feng Lu, but all she wants is to live a life of peace, serving alongside the monks of the monastery she grew up in. She begins her journey as a good-hearted woman who rejects power for the sake of maintaining her own sense of peace, but it isn’t long before Jade learns that her goodness is her power, especially as the only person who can bring peace to the empire.
Jade’s development is internally rich and thought-provoking. Not only do we root for her to overcome every obstacle in her quest to raise the Dragon Lords, but we’re also thoroughly invested in the maturation of her courage, bolstered by the extremely likeable friends, family, and romantic interest who are with her every step of the way.
While this is, at its heart, a story of good versus evil, Dao also artfully spins a tale about the thin line between the path of the hero and that of the villain.
For example, it may seem like Jade and Xifeng are clear-cut archetypes who are polar opposites, the latter being power-hungry and ambitious while the former is a pure-hearted pacifist, but ultimately there is one thing that binds their destinies together: the choice to ultimately take what they want for themselves (power/peace), or do what is right/best for others. In this way, Jade and Xifeng are expertly paired as believable foils who both draw a clear distinction between good and evil and demonstrate how easy it is to choose evil by simply allowing it. The nail-biting wait to see whose deeply entrenched power will win the day makes for an engrossing and enchanting story that I know is going to stick with me for a long time.
There are other significant themes explored or nuanced in this duology that will stick with me as well, like intergenerational trauma (sins/virtues of the mother) and how much we judge others for the gravely difficult choices they were given in life. I enjoyed Ming’s redemptive arc particularly, as well as Wren’s journey toward self love and found family.
Most of all, though, I loved how Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is a deeply moving tribute to the power of stories. Whether we grow up hearing them from our grandmother’s lips or discover them on our own in books, the human urge to tell stories is how we preserve ancient lessons of wisdom.
As we learn from Amah’s tales, the stories we hear, share, and hold close to our hearts have the power to shape our worldview from the time we are children, inform our choices later in life, evolve our morals, and help us bridge any human divide.
My heart is still processing this beautiful read, and aching over how much I needed a book like this when I was a teen. Back then, as an Asian American girl who loved folklore, I thought only Euro-centric readers had epic, beloved fairytales and myths pumping through their veins. After all, I’d grown up with Disney retellings, Grimm fairytales, and Shakespeare. The only universally loved East Asian legend that I knew of was the ballad of Mulan. Not even the lovely Korean stories my mother read to me as a child, which I dearly loved, could dissuade me from believing that the only tales that mattered were the ones I read in school or saw on the big screen.
With great compassion, I look back on my younger self and tell her she couldn’t be more mistaken. We all deserve to know that our people’s stories and traditions are as powerful and healing as any one else’s. While I dearly wish I would have had books like the Rise of the Empress duology to fill me with pride over my rich heritage, I am immensely grateful that Asian teens now and in the future will have gorgeous, lyrical books to show them how significant and deserving of praise their stories, traditions, and cultures are.
Thank you, Julie C. Dao for being an important trailblazer in so many ways.
You can keep up with Julie C. Dao here:
What should you read next?
I recommend picking up Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea and Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan for more breathtakingly beautiful East Asian tales full of folklore, heartache, and epic quests.
I mean just look at those stunning covers.