It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve reintroduced YA novels back into my life, and I’m so glad I have. It’s opened the doors to so many amazing books! One YA book I picked up early in my rediscovery process was Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao, which I got late last year from Book of the Month. I’m not sure what took me so long to read it, though, because this novel is fantastic.
A quick word of caution: Although it works as a standalone, Song of the Crimson Flower is also set in the same fantasy realm as Julie C. Dao’s recent duology. It harkens back to her first two books, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. I’ve haven’t read them yet, but I certainly plan to now. Once I do, I may even use that as an excuse to reread this one, because I love it and already want to relive the experience.
Song of the Crimson Flower takes us back in time (to the 1800s I think?) to a fantasy version of Vietnam. Lan is an upperclass lady excited to finally marry the love of her life, Tam. If only Tam would pick a wedding date, and not just play romantic flute music outside her window each night. Imagine her surprise when the orphaned physician’s apprentice Bao confesses some hard truths… including his love for her. Unfortunately for them both, that conversation doesn’t go very well.
Heartbroken, Bao decides to flee town, but he ends up getting cursed by a witch. Unless someone he loves ends up loving him in return – and declaring their love for him – before the next full moon, he’ll live out the rest of is life inside of his flute.
From here, Bao and Lan end up on a quest, traveling across the fantastical Vietnam landscape to find Bao’s long-lost mother (as well as the witch) in hopes of breaking the spell.
I didn’t know what to expect with Song of the Crimson Flower, but wow, it was amazing! I was completely drawn in from the start, thanks to the rich setting and the vivid characters alike. Moreover, it felt like one of those classic fairy tales we grow up with as children, the ones we cherish well into adulthood and pass on to the next generation. This story unfolds like a fantastical fable, with just enough enchantment to hold your rapt attention.
One thing I loved about this novel is how strong and believable – and even likable – the characters are. None of them are perfect, but even the villains have redeeming qualities. And none of the characters feels like a stereotype; each one brings their own personality, perspectives, and goals to the mix, moving the story along without that being their only function.
Bao is a wonderful character. He’s kind, generous, intelligent, and just good in general. Sure, he becomes rather bitter and snappy after his negative encounter with Lan, but it’s a realistic reaction. In time, his embarrassment and anger fade, and he grows into a man who is more self-assured and confident. He may even gain more than that by the end.
Lan is also likable and good, but she makes a major misstep early on, showing an uglier, meaner side to her. Luckily, this isn’t the core of her character, and she spends the rest of the book redeeming herself. She becomes a stronger and more reliable woman, showing bravery and grit in the face of danger. She’s much more than just a rich daughter.
Beyond Bao and Lan, we get wonderful additional characters in Captain Wei, Lady Yen, Lord Nguyen, and Wren. Perhaps my favorite is the river witch (Huong), whose dynamic story arc altered my early impressions of her. Even Mistress Vy, villainous though she may be, has a moral compass and her own view of her actions. She believes she’s a hero, not a villain, which is a thought-provoking element of this book.
I love when novels weave music into the story. Here, Bao isn’t just a skilled flautist; he may be doomed to be a flute if the spell can’t be broken. In Song of the Crimson Flower, music is a language of love, a symbol of family, and a core part of who Bao is.
Another great element here is Bao’s work as a physician’s apprentice. His medical skills prove to be useful time and time again, working to drive the story forward.
Julie C. Dao took great care to ensure that all of the characters in Song of the Crimson Flower are complete and authentic. I appreciate that many elements come full circle, tying certain things together perfectly. Not everything gets a bow on it, though: Many characters from early in the novel never make a reappearance, which seems like a shame. Even so, this book feels complete, wrapped up satisfyingly by the end.
Song of the Crimson Flower is a quick read, and comfortingly magical and like a fairy tale fable. I adored it, and am eager to go back and read Julie C. Dao’s first two books, both set in this same fantasy Vietnam world.
I also plan to read her newly published novel, Broken Wish, the first in Disney’s new four-part The Mirror series. Each book in the series will be written by a different author, which is an intriguing concept!
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