The rising popularity of wuxia and xianxia (Chinese Fantasy) has led to the creation of shows like The Untamed and Ashes of Love, and now comes the first in a new Young Adult series inspired by the myths and legends of Ancient China. Written by the same author of the Blood Heir Trilogy, Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is a new fantasy series that follows a young girl, Lan, who holds the secret to a long-lost power and the history of her nation’s past.
Lan has lived her whole life as a song girl at a teahouse in Haak’ gong, a city occupied and transformed by Elantian colonizers, who have invaded and conquered her kingdom. With only her memories of her mother’s death at the hands of these invaders and a mysterious seal, an untranslatable character on her arm that only she can see, Lan seeks to find answers to her past and to understand why her mother had burned it onto her skin when she had died. While searching for clues, she crosses paths with a mysterious boy named Zen, who can see the mark. Zen rescues Lan during a fateful encounter at her teahouse when Lan triggers a latent and mysterious power within her mark that causes her to murder one of the colonizers.
While escaping, Lan discovers Zen is a practitioner, a type of magician thought to be a myth for an art of magic that was once long-lost and banned by the Elantian colonizers. Zen can sense Lan’s mysterious yet dormant power and seeks to help her find clues on what her seal means along with uncovering the secrets of what was known as the Last Kingdom, a time before the Elantians invaded. However, during their journey there’s some secrets that Zen also holds, secrets that tie into Lan’s destiny and power that can either destroy or save their world.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is a compilation of many familiar themes from various fantasies. It has the classic and basic xianxia elements, with the untrained, initially naïve female lead and the serious and mysterious love interest who trains her, heavenly and demonic cultivation, elaborate fight scenes, and mythological gods inhabiting humans. It also utilizes real-life parallels of history within the fantasy world, drawing from the times of the Opium Wars and its impact with the most obvious monikers like the Elantian invaders, reminiscent of British and French forces, Haak’ gong, referencing Hong Kong, Hin, an allusion to Han, and more. There are also some war crime trigger warnings littered throughout the novel such as experimental camps, sexual assault, and implied mass genocide that can be considered traumatic for some readers. If the use of demon gods inhibiting humans and the heavy inspiration of the consequences of the Opium Wars sound familiar, readers will notice that the novel reads like a watered-down version of the Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang, however the similarities stop there.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night finds its strengths in the main characters, and Zhao uses them to showcase the various philosophies of good and evil and that being able to be purely good is a privileged thought. There’s a heavy theme that there should be a balance between yin and yang; disciples practicing the way of balance are mostly taught they should be good, though it’s an erroneous way of thinking especially when there are those who have no choice but to choose the path of evil if it meant they would survive. As Lan would say, “You’ve been dealt with shit choices,” and it’s very refreshing to see a set of characters who are not flip flopping with simple good and bad choices in a fantasy world but owning up to their responsibilities and the consequences of their actions.
Zhao’s new novel is the perfect entry for younger readers looking into the xianxia genre. The worldbuilding is a slow burn as readers learn the concepts of the magic system through the perspective of the Lan. The information provided readers are appropriately paced and introduced, instead of dumped on us right away. Lan questions certain topics and concepts just like a student would, if they were suddenly introduced to the fact that supernatural creatures and magic exist and that everyone has power if they simply “listen.” It feels much more organic for those new to the genre to also be following along as our main lead learns the way of the world. Also, the map of this world is so stunning and detailed that it feels like it can almost tell the story itself.
It’s no secret that one of the most obvious themes of Song of Silver, Flame Like Night, is colonialism. It may be a rising theme in fiction, but it should be told and introduced to younger readers who may not necessarily learn about the historical and real-life impact of colonialism – how massive groups of people had not only their lands taken away, but their culture, history, and essentially their identities. Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is a story of how one can take back their identity and fight against their oppressors, a theme often explored in fantasy books. Readers already familiar with wuxia and xianxia works may find the story to be familiar and possibly unoriginal, but for its intended target audience, it’s a thrilling and wonderful first start into the many possibilities of the myths and legends of ancient China.