*stares at the low ratings* *stares at my five-star rating* Well.
This was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and was included in my list of asian-inspired fantasy books. It’s about sisters betraying sisters and magic and shapeshifting is involved. Sounds amazing and cool, right? Yeah, except a lot of trusted reviewers didn’t enjoy the book and Emma even dnf’d it.
But like, I read it anyways and I freaking loved it?? (Emma you’re still valid ofc)
Also, can we just… take a moment to appreciate the beautiful girl on the cover and her red & black qipao? And her hair? I just?? (The girl on the cover is Lu, by the way!)
Two sisters become unwitting rivals in a war to claim the title of Emperor in this richly imagined, Asian-inspired fantasy for fans of Renée Ahdieh and Sabaa Tahir.
Sisters Lu and Min have always known their places as the princesses of the Empire of the First Flame: the eldest, assertive Lu, will be named her father’s heir and become the dynasty’s first female ruler, while timid Min will lead a quiet life in Lu’s shadow. Then their father names their male cousin Set the heir instead, throwing both girls’ lives into chaos.
Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu is forced to flee, leaving Min to face the volatile court alone. Lu crosses paths with Nokhai, the lone, unlikely survivor of the decimated Ashina, nomadic wolf shapeshifters. Nok never learned to shift–and he has no trust for the Empire that killed his family–but working with the princess might be the key to unlocking his true power.
As Lu and Nok form a tenuous alliance, Min’s own hidden power awakens–a forbidden, deadly magic that could secure Set’s reign . . . or allow her to claim the throne herself. But there can only be one Emperor, and the sisters’ greatest enemy could very well turn out to be each other.
Told in three distinct points-of-view, this first book in a sweeping fantasy series weaves a story of ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.
Trigger and content warnings for xenophobia, genocide, labor camps, parental emotional abuse, attempted rape, puking, menstruation, cannibalism, physical abuse, fatphobia, sexism, poisoning, strangulation, dismemberment, graphic killing, soiling, infertility, colonization, addiction, and torture.
Also, there’s one specific scene of attempted rape where a man tries to sexually assault Nokhai, which is not okay at all as the only portrayal of a queer character; if that scene wasn’t included then this book would?? probably be one of my favorites?? If anyone can let me know if that’s still in the final copy of the book, please do!
Okay but this book??? Has some of the strongest characters?? (I feel like I say that about every book, but it’s TRUE EVERY TIME. I just keep reading good books, ok?)
Lu, the central protagonist, is:
- an impulsive, reckless fighter who’s exceptionally skilled with swords
- she’s also seriously amazing at like. riding horses and stuff too
- and she also gets into trouble because of her impulsiveness! which is realistic!!
- she’s royalty and her father (the Emperor)’s favorite; so let’s be real: she’s used to getting what she wants
- she’s the princess of a nation which has committed genocide & has colonized a lot of different places; she learns to recognize her fault as a bystander and promises to give back what’s due to the colonized nations (!!!)
Nok, the Gifted Kith, is:
- hiding that he’s one of the Gifted Kith
- part of a family that can shapeshift into wolves
- he’s lost everyone that he has to death and labor camps. he’s gone through so much suffering and trauma
- puts Lu in her place as someone of high privilege
- is such a sweet person for what he’s gone through; he’s tough on the outside but that’s only because everyone has left him
- honestly just broken outside
- retweet if you think he deserves a hug
Min, the forgotten daughter, is:
- Lu’s sister, and always looked over
- originally a shy, timid girl who starts listening to her own willfulness and starts being evil
- she discovers a secret power hidden inside of her and is basically forced to use it by Set (her and Lu’s cousin) and a monk
- honestly I would love her a lot more and her badassery if she didn’t… work for the Hu, the colonizing family
- also, the thing is she’s fallen into a pit of desperation to prove that she’s worth something and she wants to show that she’s an amazing empress
- an example of spiraling downwards and going against your own morals because of the ingrained values (the patriarchy)
- has always envied and idolized Lu, who honestly hasn’t been that amazing of a sister to her
Min flinched. When she looked up again, Set’s gaze was fixed upon her with a keen intensity she had never seen before— never warranted, she supposed. It burned with delight, with intrigue.
A lie, a lie, a lie…
“I’m ready,” she repeated, hoping desperately against hope that somehow she could make it true.
As I mentioned, Lu is royalty of the Hu empire, and the Hu empire decimated several different peoples.
This book is really heavy and this topic is mentioned a lot, and it’s basically the basis of this entire story. This book gets quite graphic at some points, and some soldiers from the Hu troops even mention consuming the flesh of the shapeshifters, not knowing if they were real animals or humans with magic.
Nok, one of the main characters, had gone through so, so much; he was taken to a labor camp, his sister was killed, and he was saved randomly by a deserting soldier. Nok and Lu often have conversations about colonialism, and at first, Lu defends her own country, but Lu learns to grow and recognize the terrors that her empire has done. And she vows to stop it and to help the obliterated nations to recover.
This book is really thick (over 400 pages!) and the pace is… slow.
Some of the points that were mentioned in the synopsis weren’t really reached into really far into the book; for example, Lu and Nok’s first physical encounter was around 150 pages within, which I was surprised by and not at all prepared for! This wasn’t as fast-paced as I predicted, but honestly? I still loved it.
It reminds me of And I Darken in its entirety and in the way that the story unfolds and comprises of so much… material? It’s definitely exhaustive to read all of it, but if you’re patient and willing to work through the entire book, the payoff is worth it! In my opinion. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to read such a long book.
There’s honestly so much more that I could mention, but just know that this book includes:
- slow-burn romance
- many different beautiful settings
- a very, very cool magic system ahhhh!
- graphic killing but very cool action fights
- amazing myths and legends (but they’re briefly mentioned)
- very very cool plot twists
- that epilogue killed me…
Have you read this book? What are some of your favorite asian-inspired fantasies? Do you enjoy reading long books? What are some of your most anticipated asian-inspired fantasies?