Note: My review is based on the ARC I received in exchange for an honest review.
My Summary: Xifeng’s aunt, the witch Guma, has raised her for a great destiny. She is chosen by a god to rise to the throne of Empress of Feng Lu. However, ambition has its price, and Xifeng must make some tough decisions as she grapples with a dark power growing inside her.
I don’t consider myself a huge fan of villain stories in general, but this one definitely left an impression on me. Xifeng’s complexity as a character won me over. They say a villain is the hero of their own story, and that is definitely true for Xifeng. The early stages of her journey are not far off from a hero’s journey, but the choices she makes ultimately cements her role as a villain.
Xifeng starts out as an underdog of sorts, mistreated by her aunt with her only consolation being the promise of a grand future. Her struggle to break free from Guma’s grip is one most would sympathize with. However, even after Xifeng leaves behind Guma physically, her psyche still carries that history with her, thus shaping her later developments.
The romantic subplot was refreshing to me because Wei’s role as a love interest departs from the usual narrative in that he becomes and obstacle to Xifeng’s goal rather than the goal she aspires to. Though they have a long history together, and Xifeng genuinely cares for Wei, the futures they each imagine tug them in different directions, creating tension. This conflict struck me as being very true to real life and the kind of challenges that couples face when weighing individual interests against the benefits of being together.
Another key player in Xifeng’s complex psychological landscape is the figure of the current Empress of Feng Lu, who is at once a rival/obstacle to her goal but also a source of comfort and maternal affection. Though Xifeng puts on a show of good graces for the Empress as a ruse of harmlessness/benevolence, there is also a note of genuine emotional attachment that makes it difficult for her to view her relationship with the Empress in black and white terms and treat the Empress as completely disposable.
One of the things that really lent itself to Xifeng’s character arc is the power of internalized misogyny. Growing up with constant reinforcement that her physical appearance and beauty determine her worth, she is beholden to her fear of losing that, thus driving her to draw on her dark powers. The question of how much you’re willing to do in the quest to attain an ideal of beauty is salient in our world. In my view, Xifeng’s cunning, ambition, and perseverance make her a “strong female character” of sorts, but her choice to weaponize and play into oppressive beauty standards for women in order to achieve her goals makes her a villain or anti-heroine rather than a traditional heroine.
I guess what made the book for me as a retelling was the filling in of major gaps in the original Snow White story and the twists on the familiar figures from the original tale. The Evil Queen appears out of nowhere and has little purpose except to function as an antagonist, so building up her background and her ascent to power satisfied that curiosity of she is at the core besides an archetypal Bad Guy. It also created a great setup for the other half of the story (book 2), which centers on Snow White’s character and chronicles Xifeng’s fall from grace, so to speak.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for an antiheroine to rival Adelina in The Young Elites, Xifeng is your girl. Highly recommended for fantasy and retelling fans.