Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?
Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins—sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.
Well, I knew that this was a retelling but it was not the retelling I was expecting and I’m okay with that! This was such an interesting story showing how a selfish girl descends into utter villainy.
I love the world that this is set in. A land of magical forests and gods, poor peasants, and a glittering court. It’s also a land of war and politics. Honestly, this book has a lot going on in it, even if some of it is more in the background for now I have a feeling it will all be important later on in the series. And of course I do love a story with lots of court intrigue and once Xifeng gets to court, this has that in spades. It’s an especially interesting court to navigate since the roles there are very gendered and Xifeng has to spend time vying for the emperor’s attention as one of many women courtiers that are relegated to either ladies in waiting to the empress or concubines. Because of this separation though you get to see the court really at work and how women exerted their power. There’s also interesting magic in this from the beginning, Xifeng learns a dark art from her auntie about how to utilize her powers by eating the hearts of other living things. At first this is something that Xifeng isn’t always comfortable with, sees more as a necessity, but over the course of the story becomes more and more reliant on.
Xifeng is an interesting character. She was never likable for me and yet that didn’t turn me off from the story. Near the beginning we see that she’s treated more as a servant and suffers abuse at the hands of her aunt. So you kind of root for her at the start. But she quickly fell out of favor with me when she decides to use her best friend and sometimes lover as her hot ticket out of town in order to fulfil her destiny. She claims to love him but she clearly loves her destiny more and is leading him on in order to get what she wants. She has no intention of staying with him as she’s planning on fulfilling what’s been prophesized for her by becoming the next empress. She’s single minded with her ambition and although she does seem to care for others sometimes, if they can’t help her achieve her goals then they might as well be forgotten once she’s parted from them. She’s ambitious, selfish, and lacks a certain self-awareness. At one point she thinks how she’s not like one of the other women at court but she’s not only conniving like that woman, she’s worse! I will say one good thing about Xifeng and it’s that she’s tenacious and she doesn’t let anything stand in her way. It was quite a journey seeing her character arc and slowly coming to the realization that this was not the story that I thought it was. Of course, once you get to the end you think ‘oh, yes, that should have been obvious’. And it probably was for a lot of people but I went into this without knowing too much about it beforehand. I probably should have read the FULL blurb, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t! I think this worked much better as a surprise. 🙂
As for the other characters, well, they’re there and they’re mostly a means for Xifeng to step over, use, or backstab her way to the top. Wei is Xifeng’s best friend and lover. He’s a really good guy if a bit obsessed with Xifeng. He could have done much better but for some reason remains loyal to her far too long in my opinion. I honestly don’t understand what these two saw in each other except ‘hey, you’re pretty, want to bone?’ because that was about it. Maybe that’s all it takes, I don’t know! But their ‘romance’ never really felt like a romance, or at least it always felt very one sided on Wei’s part. And later he’s not quite as nice a guy because he does eventually become frustrated with Xifeng and her ambitions, which at that point he should have just left! She must have really been worth it for him to keep on keeping on. There are quite a few other characters as well. I feel like the most interesting were the folks from Komatsu she and Wei meet in their travels and the Empress Feng Lu. The empress was super interesting! She’s a genuinely nice woman which, you’d think being empress and dealing with conniving concubines and having your husband’s attention all over other women all the time would harden a soul. But not the empress. She’s lovely and she’s lonely and she befriends Xifeng when she’s new to court, takes her under he wing. She is the one character in this story that I really feel empathy for.
Overall, this was a beautiful story full of dark magic and wonderful descriptive prose. I recommend this to anyone who likes fairytale retellings or court intrigue, or a story from the villain’s point of view. 4/5 stars.