→Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao
| ★★★★★ | released 5 Nov 2019 |
YA fantasy romance is a genre that rarely serves me, a lesbian, this well, but Julie C. Dao understands tenderness and was ready to give it to us. This was excellent.
She looked up and saw the love in Bao’s eyes—the love that had never left him, not even in his anger—and she couldn’t help feeling that it might all be worth it. It wasn’t just the right thing to do; she knew now that even without a spell, it was what she wanted to do.
As Song of the Crimson Flower begins, upper-class Lan is in love with Tam, a wealthy nobleman, who, though he keeps delaying the wedding, also sends her letters and (she thinks) plays his flute every evening for her. When she first finds out that it was never real, that she was never loved by Tam, she is angry and upset and takes it out on Bao, the boy who truly loves her. When she goes to apologize, she finds that Bao has been cursed, and they must journey much further to attempt to break his curse.
Julie C. Dao avoids the trap of simply berating Lan for this (of course nasty) action. Instead, she is given room to understand the true nature of the world: the fact that there are men (and people in general) far nobler and kinder than her ex-fiancé. And along the way, she discovers that she may truly want different things than she has allowed herself to hope for. Lan’s character arc is subtle but very wonderful, revolving around her journey learning to separate herself from selfish men, and the grounding force of this whole book. I really really appreciate that this romance does not depend on Lan having to figure out that she was wrong to ever not want Bao; instead, it depends on her falling for him, independent of guilt.
Bao is a well-written character in his own right, one I found instantly easy to sympathize with. He is in a bad situation but still manages to be kind and caring and considerate towards others, and it is this that endears him both to Lan and other characters. A wide cast of side characters were easy to root for, as well; one is a character who I did not particularly like in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, but found easy to empathize with here. While the major conflict involving side characters is perhaps not particularly narratively relevant, I enjoyed both of the characters enough to get invested anyway.
I absolutely loved how concisely and cleanly the beginning set the tone and mood of the book — I was instantly hooked. Bao’s character introduction in particular immediately made me love him, establishing him as kind and generous and already finding ways to solve his desperate need for a family. Bao and Lan’s scenes together are equally perfectly paced and well-timed, gaining your sympathy for them both and growing your appreciation for Bao’s kindness. The opening also establishes the world through conversations that feel like genuine explanations; we learn about this world’s problems as Lan does, in a way that is satisfying to the audience.
I say this all because Forest of a Thousand Lanterns had me struggling slightly with pacing of plot and character development. With this book, however, Dao was right-off-the-bat fixing that issue.
“I’ve never stopped caring for you,” he said shakily. “I don’t know if I ever could.”
“Well, then,” she said, “stop taking your affection out on me.”
This romance was just… so tender. Bao is kind and undemanding in his love for Lan on a level that I think really resonated with me. And I really really loved seeing their relationship build over time. spoilers on a romance I stan: (view spoiler)
The thing is, as a reader, I really really love love. Romance and tenderness are such important forces. The romance genre, however, and the ya romance genre, often play with depictions of relationships that feel really alienating to me. Putting aside the many books about men who treat everyone around them badly and are quickly forgiven for it when they decide to treat their love interests well: I do not personally resonate with characters who fall in love while hardly knowing each other. Song of the Crimson Flower is based on a story about a boy who falls in love with a girl while not quite knowing her, but its arc is based around a realization of similarity deep down.
This book was an excellent reading experience for me and after Forest of a Thousand Lanterns didn’t quite click for me (though I loved the writing), I’m really glad this book worked so well for me. @ Julie C. Dao thank you.