I love an anti-heroine. I love characters who know what they want and steamroll over everyone else to get it. Xifeng’s manipulation of other characters, from her lover Wei to almost the entire royal family was a pleasure to read. She was smart and driven, and I liked that.
So I don’t have a problem with Xifeng as a character, but what I do have a problem with was the way the story was told.
It was BORING.
When you’d rather do anything BUT read a book, you know there’s a problem. Clean the house. Shop for new underwear. Scroll mindlessly through social media. And exactly how much I DIDN’T want to continue reading this one was compounded by having books I REALLY enjoyed reading bookending this one. For the first 30% I seriously considered DNFing. Why didn’t I? I should have. I read a review that said the last section was so good it made up for the first section, but that person LIED.
I think my issue was with the way ‘destiny’ was written. Everything was assured. Xifeng knew exactly where she was going, and even though she still had to make it happen and wasn’t just there for the ride, there was little question or conflict on a deeper level beyond the shallower stuff she had to do – manipulate people, hurt people, and install herself on the throne. There was no conflict of ‘is this really my destiny’ or ‘can I ignore this’. And that’s because of Xifeng’s immeasurable delusion of grandeur, hubris, and narcissism. I think it made her a brilliant character – but it made the story boring. It was GOING to happen, full stop. Absolutely no questioning it – and therefore, no conflict.
She just showed up at the palace and everyone just kind of went with the unspoken idea that one day she would be the Emperor’s wife, whether or not the other three women who are her competition are dealt with. And all of this is driven by the ‘darkness’ inside Xifeng that is the Serpent God, some evil kind of demon king that drives the entire plot, provoking Xifeng’s actions. So really, all of Xifeng’s agency is completely removed. Her choices and actions are not her own, and that, to me, didn’t make a good story. Even her initial choice of leaving Guma to run away to the Imperial Palace, well, that didn’t make sense to me because that’s exactly what Guma wanted for her, has prepared her for, and had instilled in her as her destiny, so why was she running away?
And yes, there was conflict. I mean, Xifeng kills and eats the hearts of her victims, people hated her and wished to cause her harm. But the conflict was never put in the right places. Things just happen to her because it’s her destiny: free ride to the Imperial Palace, the Empress immediately wants her as a lady-in-waiting despite her being ridonkulously beautiful and clearly a threat to the Emperor’s affections which no one acknowledges, her rivals are conveniently wiped out, and the Emperor makes her his wife. None of that had any conflict. That’s exactly what Guma said would happen and it did. It seemed almost convenient. Where was the conflict with destiny?
I had problems with the way the story was told. I found myself reading sentences I was struggling to comprehend. Actions literally didn’t make sense. At one point, Xifeng gasps in ecstasy as blood pours down her throat.
She tipped her head back, gasping as the blood gushed down her throat.
Why isn’t she choking?
In another scene, she is confronted by the Empress and starts hyperventilating just a foot away, with the Empress’s attention firmly focused on her, but she ‘forces herself to remain calm’ and the Empress doesn’t respond at all to the panic just displayed even though that’s exactly what she’s looking for. Even though she’s very clearly just seen it.
Xifeng’s breath came in short, painful bursts, remembering how she had longed for this woman to be her mother. This women who may have tried to end her before they’d ever met.
“You’re pale,” Empress Lihua said flatly.
“I’m fine, Your Majesty.” Xifeng forced herself to remain calm as the Empress studied her, as though searching for something objectionable in her manner or dress.
And I wasn’t even reading an ARC! I was reading a final copy, so this is what everyone else is reading, too.
She flipped and flopped over whether she actually loved Wei or was just using him, wait no she does love him but can’t have him (but does have him), but she doesn’t love him because she can’t love anyone, and when he leaves her suddenly she does love him, then he does something to someone she hates (or maybe loves, I can’t tell) and now she doesn’t love him. It was like, just write whatever sounds good and who cares if it actually makes sense or shows any kind of consistency. I have no fucking idea what Xifeng was thinking and feeling most of the time. She can be having a completely normal conversation then all of a sudden she’s crying and I’m like, Why are you crying? I had no idea you were feeling that emotion. It’s almost like the showing instead of telling is going overboard and going back to telling, and the whole thing feels unemotional and detached as a result.
Also, what was up with the magic? Is magic a thing everyone can do, or at least know about? Is everyone aware that demons and such exist, or are they conveniently ignoring everything? Xifeng hides the fact that she murders rabbits and rats for their hearts, but doesn’t even think about secrecy around magic. She uses magic to heal her wounds and no one notices/calls her out on it. It’s just sooooo convenient that no one gives a shit.
While I loved Xifeng as a ruthless character and I was super excited to read a diverse retelling with an anti-heroine, I’m afraid the execution of the novel failed to impress me.