Song of the Crimson Flower, the third book by author Julie C. Dao, contains all the trappings of a Vietnamese fairytale with its lush river markets, moonlight confessions of love, and dark magic. Set in the same world as Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, readers will be delighted to see some familiar faces.
What really drew me to this story was the unique twist on classic fairytale romance. However, there are a few problems that kept me from allowing myself to fully engage with the book and its characters.
Now the story centers around Bao and Lan. Lan is the daughter of a nobleman, who rejects Bao’s confession of love due to a freshly broken heart and for Bao’s low social standing as an orphan physician’s assistant. However, Lan discovers Bao’s precious flute in a boat by her house, and realizes that Bao’s soul has been trapped inside his flute by a river witch. When Lan touches the flute, Bao reappears and tells her that only love can set him free. Lan promises to help Bao break the curse and the two set off on a grand and dangerous adventure filled with war, blood magic, illegal drugs, and romance.
One of the main problems I had with this story is the pacing. One moment it is moving at lightning fast speed and the next it slows to a crawl. I think the book should have been longer than its 273 pages, especially for a fantasy. I wanted to spend more time understanding the beautiful world that Lan and Bao live in. Dao is incredibly talented at painting the beauty and vibrancy of Vietnamese culture.
Another qualm I have with the book is that much of the action takes place off the page. During a major battle at the climax of the book, both our main characters are either unconscious or sneaking past guards. All the side characters we get to know are out fighting the main antagonist, and we don’t even get to see it.
I will say that Bao’s character is a redeeming quality of this book. He is sweet, awkward, and super tall. He is truly selfless in the way he wants to help people be well. I wanted to stay with his POV much more than Lan’s. The problem with Lan is that she sometimes acts like a spoiled brat and can be incredibly awful to Bao. I don’t understand what Bao sees in her beyond her being very pretty. Her character kind of improves, in that she falls in love with Bao and treats him better, but I still sense that her entitled attitude has not gone away. Overall, Song of the Crimson Flower is a delightful Vietnamese themed fairytale. If you are looking for a shorter, light fantasy romance, then this novel is for you.