In 2017, Julie C. Dao’s explosive debut novel, "Forest of a Thousand Lanterns," lit up the young adult literary scene with its blend of mythology and drama in an origin story for the Evil Queen in “Snow White.” Dao’s back this time telling Snow White’s side of the story in “Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix.”
I love fairy tales, and I love YA novels. So why am I ambivalent about “Phoenix”? Let’s discuss.
It’s been 15 years since Empress Lihua died and ambitious Xifeng took her place. Lihua’s daughter, Jade, has been concealed in a distant monastery since she was three. As the only surviving imperial child, Jade is the last true heir of the Dragon King clan; Xifeng hasn’t been able to bear scions of her own.
Just before Jade’s eighteenth birthday, she receives a summons from her stepmother Empress Xifeng herself. Reluctantly, Jade trades the monastery for the ostentatious decadence of the Imperial Palace. There she discovers that the emperor is wasting away and the empire is falling apart under Xifeng’s iron rule.
Xifeng’s relentless attempts to solidify her position are increasingly dark and desperate. Poverty, war, famine, desolation, child labor, mysterious disappearances: the land of Feng Lu is dying along with its emperor. That shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who read “Lanterns,” seeing how Xifeng sold her soul to the Serpent God in exchange for power and eternal beauty. At the end of “Lanterns,” we were left to wonder: Was there anything left in Xifeng to redeem?
Pitted against this poisonous stepmother is diffident Jade, whose natural inclination is to disappear into the wallpaper. Consider their opposing mottoes: Jade says, "We always have a choice," where Xifeng declares, "There is only destiny, and those too afraid to seize it." How can mousy Jade hope to defeat her stepmother-empress and save the continent? She and her traveling companions must collect five legendary relics from across Feng Lu – avoiding Xifeng’s huntsman and his army of demon snakes – in order to succeed.
“Phoenix” has the hallmarks of an epic “Lord of the Rings”-style adventure, elements of which may appeal to fellow fans of "The Adventure Zone." So why, when presented with all this excitement, this tapestry of folklore, assassins, and mythical creatures, was my ultimate reaction a “meh”?
It’s because, like Jade herself, “Phoenix” follows in the footsteps of a glamorously malevolent predecessor. This is ostensibly Jade’s half of the story, but she’s constantly outshone by Xifeng. Try though Dao might, “Phoenix” is Xifeng’s story just as much as “Lanterns.”
Let’s be clear: Xifeng has all the dark magnetism of a black hole and reading her story was unpleasant. But she is a gripping, multifaceted, compelling character.
“Phoenix” falters because Jade just isn’t a charismatic hero whom we love and for whom we root. She’s not as mesmerizing a character as her stepmother. To quote Kim Kardashian, Jade is "the least exciting to look at." Yes, she’s archetypically good and pure and she forces herself to face her fears. She goes up against mighty odds with powerful motives while her identity evolves. And yet she still reads as flat. We witness her character growth through clunky thought-asides and sudden spurts of filial piety.
Where “Phoenix” succeeds, however, is when Dao forces readers to contend with the murky distinctions between hero, antihero, and villain. Jade is clearly the hero. What, then, does that make Xifeng, the original protagonist of this duology?
I ended up in a lengthy, literary dissection of this dilemma with my husband. What, I argued, were we to make of similar villain-as-amoral-protagonist works, such as "Maleficent" or "American Psycho"? As lead characters doing evil things, are they antiheroes?
Perhaps, my husband posited, the fault line between hero and antihero is the motive: pure vs. evil-but-understandable, like vengeance. And maybe the firmament between antihero and villain is the outcome: whether the world will be better or worse for their measures.
He brought up Macbeth, Anakin Skywalker of "Star Wars," and Illidan Stormrage and Arthas Menethil of "Warcraft," commenting, "The best villains are ones who used to be heroes, because there used to be good in them. You’ve seen the fall, and that’s tragic."
That’s as good a summation of Xifeng’s character arc as I could hope to write. She’s a villain who once was a hero and we mourn the loss.
Like a meteor, Xifeng outshines every part of “Phoenix” in a spellbinding and destructive explosion. Ultimately, we’re left with a clear sky and the promise of dawn – but also spots on our vision from the dazzling flash.
"Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix" isn’t for everyone. But it’s thought-provoking and, for budding writers, a potential object lesson in character creation.