Book Review : Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao

Song of the Crimson Flower (Amazon Link)

Author : Julie C. Dao
Published By : Philomel Books, Penguin Random House
Year Published : November 5, 2019 *Preorder Available*
Genre / Tags : Fantasy, Romance, Historical Fiction, YA
Formats : Hardcover, eBook
# of Pages : 282 pages (Paperback)


Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.


Note : I received an ARC of this title from Penguin Teen and Bookish First.

This book has a vibe that is charming and positive. The short length (under 300 pages) and rather fast pace makes this an ideal choice for people who need a break after a large and/or intense read or just want a relaxing reading experience in general. The story presented here is simple but in a classical way, resembling a fairy tale.

What drew me to this title initially is the unusual romance, one of the more notably unique aspects of this title. I’ll just go into details that are already presented in the back cover summary and avoid spoilers. The heroine is Lan, a young noblewoman. Her love interest is Bao, an aspiring physician and orphan. Though of two very different social classes, they were childhood friends.

As adults, she is in love with another and rejects Bao in anger- granted, she has what I think many will consider good reasons for doing so. Her words are cruel nonetheless and tarnish his idealized image of her. Filled with regret after the fact, she wants to make amends and finds that he’s been cursed by a witch. The two go on a journey to locate the witch and undo the curse. Time is ticking and his soul might otherwise be forever trapped. During their journey, she starts to see him in a new light. Conversely, he tries to close his heart off to her.

The nature of their love story is a sort of childhood friends-to-enemies, then enemies-to-lovers setup that I immediately wanted to read about. Both characters grow and change in their perceptions of each other. While I feel the large concept is teeming with the potential for intensity and drama, it’s surprisingly a surprisingly cute and easygoing romance overall. It’s also quite chaste and all-ages friendly, not any problematic aspect that I can recall.

Next area I want to cover- the reversal of fairytale stereotypes. I was very pleased to find this in Song of the Crimson Flower. For example, one of the side characters has a nuanced portrayal despite usually being of a type that is treated as uniformly evil in fables/fairytales. Next, rather than a hero saving a heroine, the hero is the one in dire straits with a heroine keen on helping to save him. Moreover, the female characters are on equal footing with the male ones in terms of power, conversation, and a zest for adventure.

Aside from undoing Bao’s curse, the characters also find out troubling things about a substance called “black spice” that has been spreading throughout multiple kingdoms and having very negative effects. The spice seems to originate from a place called the Gray Kingdom, a location which lies at the center of breaking Bao’s curse.

The setting is historical Vietnam with a touch of magic. The visuals of this world are simple to grasp yet often beautifully described. The magical energy that permeates this land is tangible and the side characters have some worthwhile development and relationships, with bits of back story. That aspect could have been broader, but it’s not bad for the page count.

Plot-wise, there was one event toward the end that I felt could have been situated differently for greater emotional impact. A small change would have injected a revelatory element of surprise for which this perhaps too even-keel novel would have benefitted from. (I will probably detail this in my Goodreads review, with the appropriate spoiler tags.)

There is a noticeable absence of any controversial or particularly grim elements. In addition to the YA demographic, middle grade readers branching into YA might be one possible audience. But the main characters are on the older side of teenaged and behave in ways that are gracefully smart and reasonable. I think a lot of adults would find something to like here as well. Tracing back to the fairytale comparison, there is a potential wide reach and appeal for this title.

Overall Rating – 8.5/10

Why You Should Try It – Graceful characterization. Feels like a light and airy fairytale, but reverses stereotypes in a neat way. Well-paced and short (under 300 pages) with what I think would be wide appeal to middle grade, YA, and adult readers. The romance is interesting. The setting is a unique and well-realized, a fantasy-infused historical Vietnam. Lovely writing style. I’m definitely eager to try more books by this author that pertain to this universe.

Why You Might Not Like It – The short length keeps many facets brief and fast-moving in a way I sense could make it less memorable over time. Moments that could have been more harrowing or surprising are missed in favor of keeping to a consistently light and positive tone. I found some of the assorted kingdom world-building chatter tedious and side characters too numerous for the page count, though perhaps other books in this universe may aid in fleshing them out properly.

Song of the Crimson Flower (Amazon Link)

Thanks so much for reading this review! Are you interested in reading Song of the Crimson Flower? Have you read any of Julie C. Dao’s other books? All of your comments/thoughts are very welcome. ~ Kitty


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