YA romance usually leaves me yawning, but I was utterly spellbound by the beautiful, tender story at the heart of Julie C. Dao’s Song of the Crimson Flower. The two leads, Bao and Lan, won me over almost immediately with their good hearts and their wonderful story. Bao is an orphan who has found an apprenticeship as a doctor, and who gives back to the community with his skills at every opportunity. Lan is also a kindhearted young woman, but her wealthy upbringing blinds her to some of the more painful aspects of the larger world. She spends her days longing for her marriage to another wealthy aristocrat and little else. But when a bitter disappointment comes her way, she lashes out at Bao, her childhood friend.
The book gives a gentle but meaningful lesson on privilege as Lan then goes on to work through her guilt and regret and truly make amends, rather than just making herself feel better. As part of her penance, she swears to lift a curse placed on Bao, one that forces them to travel together to a city under threat.
The curse, which I thought would be a convenient plot device and little more, is actually quite substantial. The witch who bestows it is no mysterious hag fond of either torturing or playing matchmaker to hapless teens, but a real person with her own motivations and story. And the curse itself is not aimed at getting Lan and Bao to reconcile, but instead is part of the larger conflict between the rulers of the five kingdoms.
Neither Lan nor Bao are not political players, nor do they have martial or sorcerous training of any kind. I love that the book didn’t expect them to, either. Their determination, cleverness, and kindness saw them through whatever perils they encountered, not violence. It’s rare to see that these days, since every other character seems to be an assassin or a warrior bristling with weapons. I appreciated the departure from trend, not least because it added to the sense of realism. Not everyone is a master thief or a long-lost princess. Most people are just trying to find their way.
Because the book celebrated these two relatively normal people with a normal difficulty keeping them apart, it was easy to relate to their blossoming friendship and romance. They actually got to know one another, learned how to fight fairly, and realized they had a lot of shared interests and values. It really seemed like a relationship that would continue long beyond the last page, even if some of the steps getting there were a tiny bit forced. But even the contrived scenes—oh no, a curse forces them to touch! And then to bathe in close proximity!—were so charming and genuine that I couldn’t be mad. This book is so earnest. It’s unselfconscious in its sweetness, and it works.
The emotional journey is really well paced alongside the physical journey, both in terms of the romance and the self-discovery. Lan starts to find the pieces of herself that withered as she waited passively to become a wife, and Bao begins to discover both his biological family and his found family. Along the way they become embroiled in a political dispute turned deadly, as several kingdoms join forces to make war on a rebellious city. The world is the same as that of the Rise of the Empress (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix), and its struggles continue. While it’s not necessary to have read the Rise of the Empress duo, it does help, since many of the major characters in that series reappear as secondary characters Song of the Crimson Flower. So if you’ve been waiting for an update on what Empress Jade and her allies have been doing, you will get a few tidbits. But if this is your first time in Dao’s world, you will be just as delighted and swept away.