This debut novel by Julie Dao is the first book in the Rise of the Empress series. The series explores the imagined youth of Snow White’s Evil Queen in an East Asian-inspired fantasy setting. Xifeng, the protagonist, is a strong, complex young woman struggling to choose between a path of light and dark. She knows the right thing to do, but a voice inside of her urges her on towards evil.
There’s a lot to praise about this novel: Xifeng, our heroine, is strong and powerful, but at the same time she is not immune to the culture and mores of her time. She has to be careful to seem humble and ladylike as she forges her way towards becoming the next Empress of Feng Lu. At the same time, she is more spirited than the women in classic fairy tales. She propels herself by her own choices, not quietly accepting what the world throws at her. Another divergence from the norms: following her destiny for greatness means leaving behind Wei, Xifeng’s handsome boyfriend who longs to marry her and live a quiet life together. We are told that Wei is meant to play some role in Xifeng’s fate, but it’s clear that Xifeng’s journey will be more about realizing her destiny than finding her one true love. Continue reading