By: Amélie Wen Zhao
Genre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: Random House Children’s Book
“If she closed her eyes, she could remember exactly how her world had ended.
Snow, falling like ashes.
Wind, sighing through bamboo.
And the song of a woodlute weaving into the skies.
She’d had a name, once. Her mother had given it to her. Lian’er, meaning “lotus”: The flower that bloomed from nothing but mud, a light in the darkest of times.”
Amélie Wen Zhao, Song of Silver Flame Like Night
Song of Silver Flame Like Night, by Amélie Wen Zhao, is a beautifully written young adult fantasy with characters that grab your heart, stunning world building, gorgeous prose, and magic that fit perfectly with the story. The main protagonist is Lian’er, or Lan. Orphaned when her home was invaded by the Elantians, killed her mother, and destroyed most of what remains of her Hin culture. Before she died, she burned a symbol into Lan’s wrist, one only she can see, but does not know what it represents. Left an orphan, found on the streets begging, she was taken to Madame Meng, and now works singing at the Rose Pavilion Teahouse. She is contracted to work there until it might be bought by someone, or she can pay it herself. Magic practitioners in what was once Hin, are outlawed, hunted, and killed, or in some cases, experimented upon. Lan has spent her life trying to decipher a symbol her mother left upon her before she died. A young Hin practitioner, Zen, enters her life as he senses her powerful magic, magic she doesn’t know she possesses. Here, Lan and Zen’s adventure begins to decipher her rune, and find what her mother was hiding from her. Song of Silver Flame Like Night was an exquisite feast for the senses, transporting the reader to the incredible magical world Ms. Zhao created.
The characters were wonderfully developed. There is the use of the orphaned trope with powers they do not know about, but it is used very well here. While we know Lan was orphaned, Ms. Zhoa chose not to go into the details of her time begging on the streets. I liked that choice as it has been done many times, and in this particular case, it would not have added to the story. It’s enough for the reader to know where she came from, her mother’s mysterious dying gift to Lan, and her work at the teahouse. Lan is a strong female protagonist, is very charismatic, and this makes the reader want to know her story. What she lives by was what her mother always told her, “My mother told me that it is the duty of those with power to protect those without.” Lan believes the key to this lies in the symbol her mother left her. She wants to drive the Elantians from her home, and re-claim their heritage and culture.
The other main character is Zen, a Hin magic practitioner. He is complicated and conflicted, but is trying to desperately do what is right. I would have to say that he is a morally gray character given what unfolds in the story. Zen was also orphaned as a child when the Elantians invaded. To exact revenge, as a child, he made a deal with a demon, who now resides in him. However, Zen refuses to unleash its power. He is taken in by the Grandmaster of the School of the White Pines, the last holdout of Hin practitioners. It is here that he takes Lan so she can learn to control her power and hopefully decipher her symbol. Zen and Lan come to care deeply for each other, but the Elantian threat is always closing in, threatening everything they care about.
There are many characters, all very well-developed. The one other noteworthy character I wanted to mention was the Grandmaster of the School of the White Pines, Shifu De’zi. He is calm, gentle, and also holds secrets. The wisdom he imparts is always thought provoking, not just for his students, but for the reader as well. I loved how even in the face of adversity; he exuded a sense of peace.
“The fundamental concept of the Way is balance…the world is constantly shifting, yin changing to yang, yang changing to yin, in a perpetual cycle of balance. Life results in death, and death gives way to life; day turns to night, and night will always yield to day. Sun and moon, summer and winter-both are eternally present in this world.”
Amélie Wen Zhao, Song of Silver Flame Like Night
The pacing and prose were perfect. I was drawn into the story from the first page. I wanted to know Lan, I wanted to know her story. What was her symbol? What did her mother impart to her? What was her magic? It was the same when Zen made his appearance, though in a bit more mysterious way, and De’zi as well. I wanted to know all of them and how this story would unfold. Ms. Zhao created a well-balanced story that had action, interspersed with quiet scenes at the School of the White Pines. Lan and Zen are on the run from Elantian soldiers, and mainly, their Winter Magician. He is a powerful sorcerer who is after Lan’s magic. It is edge of your seat excitement as they escape and try to evade him. At the School of the White Pines, Lan is given lessons to learn about and control her magic. De’zi is an ever-present force in bringing balance and peace.
The magic system was well-imagined and very unique. For the Elantians, metal is their primary channel for magic. The Winter Magician wears many bracelets of varying metals that he uses to perform his magic. He can hone in on other types of magic, thereby hunting down Hin practitioners. Many Hin were killed, and some were experimented on to try and discern their magic. They were the epitome of colonizers, destroying every trace of Hin culture they could, and incorporating some aspects. Hin practitioners use symbols to perform magic. They can become gateways, protective barriers, and be used for defense. Lan’s singing and musical ability was part of how her magic manifested. It was very clever and imaginative.
The story is told in the third-person perspective of Lan and Zen, a chapter devoted to each one. The prose is sharp and crisp, and in many places, beautifully poetic. The choice to tell the story of both characters was another great one by Ms. Zhao. Both Lan and Zen harbor secrets, but at the same time, their young lives are fairly similar. As orphans, each were pushed in a different direction, but ultimately their paths met. We see the other characters through their eyes, and many times, each paints a different picture of them. Overall, it was simply a wonderful YA fantasy that I would highly recommend.
“Lian’er. Song Lian. It means “lotus,” Mama had once explained. She’s always had a voice like song bells. …
I, too, am named after a flower-mei, a plum blossom…
See how they [lotus] bloom every cycle, without fail, her mother said. See how they grow out of nothing but mud, how their resilience brings light and hope.
Plum blossoms, too, Mama had said, were symbols of courage and persistence, for the way they bloomed through the thickest winter snows.”
Amélie Wen Zhao, Song of Silver Flame Like Night
Song of Silver Flame Like Night, by Amélie Wen Zhao, is a beautifully written YA fantasy inspired by her Chinese heritage and what she learned as a child. I absolutely loved this book. The main protagonist, Lan, is a strong Hin young woman who wants to free her people from the Elantians, who invaded her country and wiped out her culture. Her mother gifted her with secret magic before she died, and Lan’s journey is discovering who she is and what her magic can do. She is aided by Zen, another Hin magic practitioner. Zen is complicated and a bit of a morally gray character. As a young boy, his home destroyed and family murdered, he made a deal with a demon that now resides in him. While Zen tries to keep the demon at bay, he is not always successful. For a practitioner to make a deal with a demon is forbidden. As their feelings for each other grow, so do the obstacles placed in their path. Lan is hunted by the Elantian Magician, the Winter Magician for what her mother gave her. Zen takes her to the school where he has learned to control his magic, the School of the White Pines, headed by Grandmaster Shifu De’zi. The story drew me in from the first page, and is packed with action, journeys, mysterious lost magical artifacts, and unique magic. There are twists and turns, and excitement throughout the book. There are beautiful passages that reflect on the life that Lan remembers her mother telling her, and those that De’zi imparts. Song of Silver Flame Like Night is a YA fantasy that I think everyone will enjoy as both a fantasy and beautifully told story by Amélie Wen Zhao. I highly recommend it.
My thanks to Random House Children’s Books for approving and ARC and NetGalley for providing and eBook.
Once, Lan had a different name. Now she goes by the one the Elantian colonizers gave her when they invaded her kingdom, killed her mother, and outlawed her people’s magic. She spends her nights as a song girl in Haak’gong, a city transformed by the conquerors, and her days scavenging for what she can find of the past. Anything to understand the strange mark burned into her arm by her mother in her last act before she died.
The mark is mysterious—an untranslatable Hin character—and no one but Lan can see it. Until the night a boy appears at her teahouse and saves her life.
Zen is a practitioner—one of the fabled magicians of the Last Kingdom. Their magic was rumored to have been drawn from the demons they communed with. Magic believed to be long lost. Now it must be hidden from the Elantians at all costs.
When Zen comes across Lan, he recognizes what she is: a practitioner with a powerful ability hidden in the mark on her arm. He’s never seen anything like it—but he knows that if there are answers, they lie deep in the pine forests and misty mountains of the Last Kingdom, with an order of practitioning masters planning to overthrow the Elantian regime.
Both Lan and Zen have secrets buried deep within—secrets they must hide from others, and secrets that they themselves have yet to discover. Fate has connected them, but their destiny remains unwritten. Both hold the power to liberate their land. And both hold the power to destroy the world.
Now the battle for the Last Kingdom begins.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amélie Wen Zhao（赵雯）was born in Paris and grew up in Beijing, where she spent her days reenacting tales of legendary heroes, ancient kingdoms, and lost magic at her grandmother’s courtyard house. She attended college in the United States and now resides in New York City, working as a finance professional by day and fantasy author by night. In her spare time, she loves to travel with her family in China, where she’s determined to walk the rivers and lakes of old just like the practitioners in her novels do.