I’m a fan of short books. They’re great ways to get your reading count up if you’re trying to meet a goal, and they’re a wonderful way to fit some reading into the day when you don’t have the energy or mental space for a longer, meatier book.
But sometimes, shortness just doesn’t work for the story you’re trying to tell. Sometimes, you really do need to take the time to explore your setting and your plot, and if that takes 500+ pages, then so be it. If you need to do that in order to do justice to the story that you want to tell, then you need to do that!
Unfortuantely, Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao is a perfect example of when short books do no favors, for either the author or the reader. If you want to know why I, unfortunately, did not enjoy this book, then read on!
Here’s the thing. I deeply, deeply enjoy Julie C. Dao’s writing. Here is my review of her debut, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, which I adored. I also very much enjoyed Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, and I feel she really showed her writing chops in that book as far as world-building and action-packed scenes go.
I was super excited to get to Song of the Crimson Flower, and more so when I found out that it was set in the same universe as Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. The book can be read as a standalone in my opinion, but it makes a ton of references to events in the first two books, so if you want to understand some comments the characters make, then definitely read those two first.
What’s the series about anyway?
The Rise of the Empress series begins with Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, which is a retelling of the origin story of the Evil Queen from Snow White. The main character, Xifeng, is a peasant who rises to power and greatness when the Emperor falls in love with her beauty, helped along of course by Xifeng’s dark magic. She hears a prophecy that her stepdaughter, Princess Jade, will be her undoing, so she sends to girl away to be raised in a monastery far from the palace. However, in the sequel Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, Jade eventually comes into her own, raises an army against her stepmother, takes back her throne, and becomes Empress herself.
That’s where we find ourselves in Song of the Crimson Flower. The story begins with Lan, the teenaged daughter of a wealthy government minister, being serenaded by a boy she thinks is Tam, the only son of another wealthy government minister and to whom she is soon to be engaged. However, it’s not actually Tam serenading her and falling in love with her every night, but Bao, the foundling taken in by Tam’s family. It turns out Tam does not actually love Lan, but in order to save face, Tam’s family have ordered Bao to pretend to be Tam and woo Lan in his stead.
Of course, Bao actually does fall for Lan on his own, and tries to make his feelings known. However, Lan, hurt and betrayed, cruelly rejects Bao and drives him away. Bao flees into the woods and encounters a woman known as the river witch, who casts a curse on him that turns him into a flute and declares that only love will set him free. Lan eventually finds the flute that Bao has become and resolves to make amends by helping Bao break the curse. And in the course of breaking the curse, they find themselves teaming up Empress Jade, Commander Wei, and Wren. The only one who can break Bao’s curse is the river witch’s sister, an evil, power-hungry queen seeking to undermine Empress Jade’s rule, so Lan and Bao must join forces with heroes familiar to us in order to break the curse and save the continent of Feng Lu.
You’re right, it does sound epic!
And the book is only 288 pages long.
Compare that to Forest, which was 363 pages long, and Kingdom, which was 384. Both dealt with some pretty heavy material – magic, politics, the cycle of abuse – and handled those topics with all the in-depth analysis and care that it deserved. In particular, I like how the two stories seemed like book ends. We got to see how two victims of abuse – Xifeng and Jade – handled what was done to them, and which of the two was able to break that cycle. Xifeng became cruel and selfish, and Jade remained compassionate and kind. And that’s why Jade became a greater ruler than Xifeng could ever have hoped to.
When you compare all of that to the plot of Song of the Crimson Flower, this book seems like a cozy fantasy story that takes place in the midst of this universe. And it’s certainly a story I was eager for! I legitimately thought this was a book I’d end up loving. The first few chapters seemed that way too. We’re shown Lan and Bao unwittingly falling for each other, then we see Lan hurt and betrayed and cruelly rejecting Bao, Bao running away and encountering the witch that curses him, and it seems like just the perfect set-up for a wonderful love story that just so happens to take place in Empress Jade’s realm.
But then this book takes an abrupt detour away from the cozy fantasy story I was hoping for and makes right for a great big honking epic, complete with a mysterious drug that enhances magical abilities, a plague decimating the people, a daring escape from a city jail, and a final battle. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, of course. But I very firmly believe that such a lengthy story, with so many different aspects and influences to the final outcome, cannot be told well within the scope of 288 pages.
I’m not asking for a 500+ page monster. But Song of a Crimson Flower felt, ultimately, rushed, hectic, and like the author was running out of time. The last time I felt this way about something I was reading, I was correcting a final paper from one of my former students who admitted that he’d crammed it two hours before the start of the class. That was, in the end, what the book felt like. Crammed.
It’s sad, because I feel like if the author had taken the time to write this book, really crafted a longer story with a more in-depth look at the characters, their motivations, and the political climate that led to the state of war, I feel like I’d have enjoyed this book a little bit more.
Let’s hear from you!
☕ Have you read Song of the Crimson Flower? What did you think?
☕ What are some of your favorite short books?
☕ Conversely, what are some of your favorite long books?