Those With Power Protect Those Without
It seems there are Young Adult novels releasing every single day, and at times the genre can get bogged down in tired clichés and recurring tropes. The Chosen One who doesn’t know they’re special? The forbidden romantic love interest/love triangle? The magical McGuffin that holds the key to everything? A world-ending threat only our hero can stop? All of these novels seem to use a variation of these ideas and after a while they tend to blur into one another without much to separate them all.
Song Of Silver, Flame Like Night looks set to kick off 2023 with a delightful YA adventure, one that actually adopts a lot of those aforementioned clichés, but combines them with unfamiliar Chinese lore. The result is a surprisingly gripping book, full of great worldbuilding, likable characters and a decent magic system.
That strong characterization is typified by plucky Lan, whom we follow as the book’s protagonist. Lan lives in Haak’gong, a former Hin City that was invaded by Elantian colonizers when she was a child. As a result, Lan is forced to work, paying off a binding contract at the local teahouse. However, she’s haunted by memories of her past and secrets involving her mother, typified by a strange mark burned into her arm twelve years (cycles) ago.
It doesn’t take long for Lan to cross paths with Zen, a practitioner (fabled magician) from the Last Kingdom. He recognizes the mark on Lan’s arm and whisks her off on an adventure she’ll never forget. Hunted by Elantian soldiers and with the lingering sense of impending war on the horizon, Lan and Zen start to understand more of their past, with the latter holding a fair few shocking truths of his own.
As the book progresses, we’re introduced to a whole rabble of new characters that join them, each with their own agendas and goals, which eventually collides into a shocking and pulsating final act. I won’t spoil what happens here but suffice to say, everything in this first book is nicely paced and you’ll be anxious to find out where this story goes next when the epilogue closes out.
The magic system and worldbuilding help to make this feel like a real, vibrant land. It helps that a lot of what’s been created here harks back to the age of Imperialism, which essentially works as a blend of fantasy and Chinese history together. For anyone who watched the K-drama Alchemy of Souls or watched a fantasy Chinese drama as of late, they’ll instantly see some similarities.
It’s the characters of Lan and Zen who will ultimately keep you reading when things get a bit cliched though. Both of them have clear goals and motivations, and are well-defined throughout. It helps that the novel jumps back and forth between both characters throughout, seeing events from both perspectives and understanding how they both feel about each other and the wider world around them.
The whimsical prose keeps this one engaging and you can tell the book is tailored for teenagers. While there are some strong and pretty dark themes here, they’re not explored with any sort of visceral violence or nail-biting depth. Likewise, there’s not much in the way of swearing beyond the odd curse word here and there, and only during heightened bouts of tension. Instead, nicknames like “Horse face” are used much more frequently, to amusing effect.
This actually suits the story, as the focus here is primarily on the magic – and boy does Song of Silver, Flame Like Night deliver on that front. The explanation around qi usage, as well as the four demon Gods, the different Seals and limitations to magic make perfect sense and it slips so seamlessly into this world. Too often these sort of stories introduce magic systems with huge flaws and you find yourself questioning where the tension lies. Not so with this one, as author Amélie Wen Zhao has managed to strengthen Lan while also keeping her vulnerable throughout the story, which is no easy feat.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night still adheres to the usual YA beats you’ve come to expect from a novel like this, and you’ll definitely feel a sense of Deja vu while reading, especially toward the start and middle of the book. If you can make it past the halfway point though, Zhao takes the story in an interesting direction, leaving everything tantalizingly open for the second volume to follow. And by the time you finish that last page, you’ll be counting down the cycles until the next is released!
Our thanks to Netgalley and Random Penguin House for the advanced reader’s copy! Song Of Silver, Flame Like Night will be published on 3rd January 2023. You can pre-order the novel here!
Verdict - 7.5/10