Last year Julie C. Dao swept readers away to an enchanting and deadly fantasy world in her debut novel Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a retelling of “Snow White” centered around the Evil Queen. This fall, Dao is taking readers back to the land of Feng Lu with the highly-anticipated Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, which picks up years after Forest ended and introduces readers to Jade, a young girl who may be the empire’s only hope for removing the vicious Xifeng from power. I chatted with Dao last year about Forest (one of my favorite reads of 2017) and was eager to catch up with her again this year to talk about Kingdom. Here Dao shares her thoughts on destiny versus choice, the impact of fables on her own life, and her favorite magical elements of this series.
Bookish: Both books in this series have strong feminist themes, but those themes are showcased in very different ways. In Forest, Xifeng saw other women as enemies, and in Kingdom Jade sees them as allies. Xifeng was underestimated in the first book and it led to destruction, while in the second, underestimating Jade could be Xifeng’s downfall. Was Jade’s behavior always intended as a subversion of the way Xifeng views and treats other women, or was that something that developed during the writing process?
Julie C. Dao: I planned out both Xifeng and Jade’s character arcs extensively before and during the creation of this duology. I wanted them to be perfect foils. On the surface, they don’t seem all that different: They are both poised to become Empress in their respective books, they are both underestimated girls, and they are both driven and courageous in their own ways. Where they diverge is in the very core of their identities. After all, one becomes the Evil Queen and the other, Snow White. I wanted to peel back their layers to show the contrast between them in the way they think about their world, process the things that happen to them, and consider choice and destiny. Their attitudes toward other women are certainly some of their most significant contrasting qualities.
Bookish: Xifeng is the protagonist in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, but here she’s a side character. What were the challenges of writing her character in such a drastically different role?
JCD: I honestly didn’t find it difficult. Writing Forest was so satisfying for me because I got to explore Xifeng’s full character arc. By the end of that book, we have seen everything from her and there is only one road left to take. I was ready to focus on a fresh new character and I really enjoyed seeing Xifeng through other people’s eyes.
Bookish: Jade and her friends journey through the different kingdoms of Feng Lu throughout this book. If you could live in one of the kingdoms, which would you choose?
JCD: I would live in the Great Forest! I adore being around trees. There’s something so comforting and calming about wandering in the woods.
Bookish: One of my favorite magical elements of the book is Jade’s cloak, which is lined with a map of the kingdoms they must travel to. Over the course of the book, it reveals the relics they must find, and even the enemies hunting them. Where did you get the idea for the map inside the cloak?
JCD: That is also one of my favorite elements! Ever since I created the character of Jade’s nursemaid, Amah, she had always been sewing… something. I asked myself, on the second or third draft of my story, what exactly was she sewing while spouting sassy responses and insulting Xifeng?! I also wanted an element of magic tying Jade to her mother, Lihua, as she progressed through this quest. The cloak with the secret map embroidered inside was a spark of inspiration that solved both of these problems.
Bookish: Jade meets challenges during her journey that reflect the fables she grew up hearing. Were the fables inspired by myths you knew or were they entirely your own creation?
JCD: Ever since I was young, I have loved reading folktales and mythology! It amazed me how many variations of a single story could be found all around the world, and confirmed my belief that the art of storytelling transcends cultures and borders. It was important to me that the fables in Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix feel both familiar and original at the same time, which is how I want the entire book to be as a reimagining of “Snow White”. To try and accomplish that, I borrowed elements from various tales and made them my own by shaping them to fit Jade’s story.
There is a tale about a frugal bird who saves all the other animals in the forest after a devastating storm, but for the purposes of my novel, I made it a phoenix. The story of Tam and Cam is a Vietnamese rendering of “Cinderella”, in which the mother is reincarnated as a fish and grants her good daughter wishes, and I kept much of the tale but reshaped it slightly. The crane story is based on a tale I read about a farmer who saves a crane’s life and finds that the crane can transform into a woman, and also a story about swan-maidens and a prince who steals one of their cloaks.
Before I began this series, I did want to challenge myself to write a completely original fable as well, so Empress Lihua’s tale of the thousand lanterns, the princess, and the musician is entirely of my own creation!
Bookish: Jade acknowledges that the fables are shaping her into who she’s meant to be. Which stories have helped to shape who you are?
JCD: I grew up with my nose in a book. Anytime my parents wanted to look for me, they would find me tucked in a corner with a stack of books from the library. Fairy tales, folklore, and mythology shaped me as both a reader and a writer, and I read my collection of The Arabian Nights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and so many other compilations of stories from around the world cover-to-cover. Clearly, I still draw heavily upon those tales today, so they were an important part of my formative years.
Bookish: Both Jade and Xifeng consider the differences between destiny and choice throughout this series. Xifeng believes, “There is only destiny and those too afraid to seize it.” Jade thinks everyone has the power to choose their path, but she also seems to recognize that it is her destiny to remove Xifeng from the throne. How do you see the destiny and choice working together throughout the series?
JCD: The intricate relationship between destiny and choice is fascinating to me, and I find that when you ask people which they believe in, the answers vary widely! I’ve always liked the idea that each of us may have several paths we’re likely and able to take in life, but it is entirely up to us which one we choose. Sort of a blend of destiny and choice.
You see this in Jade, who realizes that it is her duty to save her empire, and although she feels it is an obligation at first, throughout the book she realizes that making this choice will bring her closer to being the person she’s always wanted to be: someone who does good, who cares about others and upholds the values Amah and the monks taught her. She thrives on internal validation, while Xifeng is entirely external and sees only one set destiny that will bring her to the glory and greatness she hungers for.
Bookish: The Crimson Army (a band of women who live in the mountains and protect other women) is one of my favorite elements in this book. What inspired you in creating them? Like Wren, would you want to join them if you could?
JCD: The Crimson Army was one of my favorite elements to write! I got the idea when I was putting together my Pinterest board for Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, something I do to find inspiration. I came across artwork depicting a female warrior—fierce, masked, and red-lipped—and I knew I wanted to include her in my world somehow. From there, the idea of an all-female army blossomed as I asked myself where these women came from and how and why they became fighters.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not warrior material, so I don’t think they would accept me among their ranks. Unless they needed a scribe to document all of their adventures? I could do that!
Bookish: Both Wren and Jade long for different lives than those they were born into. In many ways, they’re seeking control over their own lives. What drew you to this theme?
JCD: I grew up in a very strict immigrant family with an extremely domineering father. He made it clear that he would choose every aspect of my life for me, including where I went to school, what I studied, what age I would marry, where I would live, etc. I was, essentially, groomed to believe my parents were gods and knew me better than I knew myself. I was 21, miserable, and in college when I finally broke the cycle and decided to choose for myself and fight for the life I wanted. I’ve never looked back since (except to use the inspiration for my stories, because I’ve noticed a recurring theme of teenagers struggling against weighty expectations in every book).
Bookish: I found the ending of this book to be really satisfying, particularly the end of Xifeng’s storyline. How long did you know what would become of her at the end of this series?
JCD: I’m so glad! Thank you for saying that! I have always known what would become of Xifeng. This is spoiler-free, but there are hints in one of the first scenes of Forest, when Xifeng and her aunt are reading her destiny in the cards. If you pay careful attention to Xifeng’s cards—and they are mentioned a couple times throughout the book, and appear again in a scene in Kingdom—you’ll see that there are multiple different ways to interpret them. One of these is the actual outcome.
Bookish: What can we expect from you next? Are there any other fairy tales you’d want to write retellings of?
JCD: I’m working on a standalone YA fantasy that is set in the same universe as Forest and Kingdom, featuring brand-new characters—although a few familiar faces might just show up! And I definitely hope to write more fairy tale-inspired books in the future. I don’t have any specific ones I’m considering just yet, but I’m excited to find out what they are when the time is right.
Julie Dao is a proud Vietnamese American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. Her debut book was Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.