Song of Silver, Flame Like Night Introduces An Immersive and Lyrical Fantasy LandscapeBooks Reviews Amelie Wen Zhao
The odds are fairly decent that a lot of readers slept on author Amelie Wen Zhao’s debut Blood Heir trilogy—the first book in the series was delayed following a storm of pre-release criticism and vitriolic Twitter feuding, the second by the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, and the whole thing was sort of eventually overshadowed by a much larger (and necessary) industry debate about representation in teen fiction and the supposed perils of cancel culture. But here’s hoping we don’t make the same mistake with her follow-up, Song of Silver, Flame Like NIght, an immersive doorstopper of a fantasy opener that spins a dense, intriguing story of rebellion, hope, and self-discovery. (With a ridiculously exciting cliffhanger.)
Influenced by Chinese mythology, folklore, and xianxia writing, this story clearly has deep roots in Zhao’s own experiences and history, and it’s clear from its first pages—as well as in the author’s note that accompanies it—that this is a tale near and dear to her heart. Her obvious care for every aspect of the tale is evident throughout, from its layered, multidimensional characters to the rich world they inhabit. Since this book clocks in somewhere around 500 pages, you could argue that there are points where the author may well be a little too in love with the world she’s built, but on the whole, the end result is rich, immersive, and realized down to its smallest details.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night follows the story of Lián’ér, a member of the Hin people of the Last Kingdom, who was just six years old when the Elantians invaded her country, killed her mother, outlawed her people’s magic, and forced the members of her countrymen who survived to live like second-class citizens in service to their conquerors as their land was pillaged for its valuable resources. (Elantian magic is metal-based, meaning the Hin are barely allowed to own real silverware.) Now known as Lan, she entertains patrons as a song girl in Haak’gong’s Rose Pavilion Teahouse, one of the only establishments that still preserves Hin culture. But she spends her days secretly searching the city for clues about the strange Hin character her mother burned into her arm just before she was killed.
When an incident at the teahouse results in a dead Elantian general, Lan is rescued by a mysterious stranger named Zen, one of the last surviving Hin magic practitioners, whose arts have long been forbidden by the conquerors. When he realizes she has abilities of her own and something powerful locked within the mark on her arm, he takes her to the last hidden school of practitioning in China in the hopes of helping her unlock the truth of who she is—and who her mother was. Zen, of course, has his own dark and tangled past that must be reckoned with, and as he and Lan grow closer, their choices become more complicated (and are often more in conflict.)
As protagonists go, Lan is feisty and scrappy, a girl who’s had to learn how to survive on her own because the alternative was to not survive at all. She has vague memories of a time before her country was conquered, and longs to get justice not just for herself and her family, but for the whole world that was destroyed when the Elantians came. As for Zen, he carries dark secrets both literal and figurative, and he struggles with control and guilt in a way that Lan does not. (In Lan’s mind, what good is having power if you don’t help those without it?) The dynamic between them is one of the best parts of the book, if only because is ever asked to become something they aren’t for the other—for both good and for ill.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night unspools a complex timeline of a lost people, complete with deep dives into the culture, politics, and religious influences of both the Last Kingdom and those which came before it. Lin’s determination to hang on to some aspect of the culture of her ancestors in the face of the threats of forced assimilation is bittersweet and moving, as is her desperation to find answers about the mother whose loss she still mourns. The story wrestles with timely issues of colonialism, the rights of indigenous peoples, the ethics of war, and the misuse of power, and doesn’t offer easy answers to many of the questions it poses. Rather, it allows its characters the space to rage and despair and make mistakes, even as they fight for a different and better future.
The story’s unique qi-based magical system stresses duality and balance, and its artful character-based delivery feels rich and unique. Zhao is also careful to show us the dark side of magic through her depiction of the Elantians, who only ever seem to want more power and whose abilities are grounded in theft and consumption. It is these differences in approach to magic—how it is used, but more importantly what it is used for—that drive the story toward its action-packed climax and reveal several game-changing secrets that will make the wait for the next book in this series very difficult.
Despite its length, Song of Silver, Flame Like Night’s well-considered pacing keeps the story moving at a brisk clip, as magical threats, enemy soldiers, and even demon gods push Lan and Zen to question exactly who they are and what they’re willing to do in the name of reclaiming their identities and protecting their homeland.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.