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

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

‘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?’

Song of the Crimson Flower follows the story of Bao, who has been in love with a girl he has grown to idealise, and Lan, the pampered girl herself. Though the book’s blurb claims that Bao ‘despises’ her after her rejection of him, I feel it’s important to point out that that isn’t a word that accurately portrays his feelings, nor reflects truly on him, as Bao is very much presented as someone who would not leap to such anger without incredibly good reason – certainly better than being rejected by Lan.

Bao is portrayed as an honourable soul who does his best to do right by as many people as he can, his past suffering something that drives him to try and ensure that he gives what he can to try and prevent others, even those he does not know, from experiencing what he has. The situation he finds himself in with Tam is more complex than it looks on the surface, for while Bao stands to suffer if he does not do as Tam’s mother directs, Tam is also trying to avoid being mistreated by his parents, for all that he does not go about it in the right way. Both of them are yearning for something different in the world, though it is much harder to sympathise with Tam, who comes across as arrogant and ungrateful, for all that to be forced into something he does not want is not something to wish upon a person. What is refreshing to see in Bao is a male protagonist who does not go out of his way to try and change the object of his affection, is not aggressive and not rude in his interaction with her or others. However, it could be said that he does need to stand up for himself more, as he accepts unreasonable behaviour on more than one occasion.

Lan is a difficult character to sympathise with, much as Tam, and though there are some moments (which I wish had been developed in greater detail) where it seems that she could have been a much different person, there are instances where it feels that she and Tam are much more on the same level than it would be kind to acknowledge. She appears to be very much someone who has been raised by a lifestyle and expectations rather than real human interaction, and once the one person that that there is evidence she truly cared about was gone, so was a good deal of her humanity. The thing is, Lan knows that she could and should behave better, but she spends a lot of time berating others and being annoyed with Bao for having feelings for her, often treating him very unkindly when he is only trying to do his best in the circumstances that he finds himself in. She does learn as the narrative unfolds, but whether it is enough is, I think, down to the individual reader.

If I were to be honest, I was more invested in Wei and Yen’s love story than that of Bao and Lan, as I kept hoping for more of their interactions as I was reading. Some of what the reader sees of them is clearly designed to try and teach Lan something, and while it’s true that she learns to reflect on her own behaviour and consider whether her desires are her own or those imprinted on her by circumstance, I was more intrigued by the story unfolding before her than I was in those realisations at that moment.

I would say that one thing I was quite conscious of as I was reading was the quite frequent use of heavy exposition. This, paired with the fact that there are some elements of the story that the characters accept without question, such as Bao’s visions and the very quick understanding of who his mother is, make the narrative a little clumsy in places. This is not to say that it is not an enjoyable read, because I did genuinely like the book, but these instances of easy acceptance take away a lot of suspense and tension and sign-point where events are headed quite early on. It is certainly well written and the description is often beautiful, and it’s a good addition to the other books set in this universe.

Song of the Crimson Flower is available in bookshops now!

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