Song of the Crimson Flower

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Song of the Crimson Flower Book Poster Image
Absorbing companion story to Asian-inspired fantasy series.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Fantasy meant to entertain.

Positive Messages

The ends don't justify the means; having good intentions or trying to create something good don't matter if you cause harm to people to achieve your goal. Very high addiction risk is too big a price to pay for the possible benefits of an addictive substance. Family is the people you love and build a life with, not the people you're related to by blood. Real love is building a life together with someone you can talk things through and work things out with.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Despite her sheltered childhood, Lan is smart, brave, adventurous, and interested in politics and the world around her. When she hurts someone she wants to apologize and make amends. Both she and Bao stick to their convictions, stay loyal to friends and loved ones, and see things through to the end. Bao had a difficult childhood but is always compassionate, generous, and kind.


There's no real gore, but blood and pain are sometimes briefly described from illness or injury. A few battles with crossbows, grenade-type explosives, and chemical warfare involving a mind-altering gas mention horses screaming and dead bodies. Some fights involve hitting and knocking unconscious with blunt weapons and magically knocking people out. A magical spell is made stronger using blood from the victim's cut hand. A contagious disease called "bloodpox" ends with victims bleeding from eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.


A few kisses, one mentions tongue and several embraces interrupted just before kissing. Growing feelings of attraction and love. One narrator sees two other people passionately kissing.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A major plot element involves a poppy-based substance called black spice that's used as medicine and is a possible cure for disease, but it's also highly addictive and has destroyed many lives. It's been outlawed, but one community continues to manufacture and experiment with it and exports it illegally. The story takes the strong stance that the addictive nature of black spice makes it too dangerous to allow growing, manufacturing, and experimenting with it, not even to find benefits and reduce how addictive it is. A couple of mentions of adults drinking rice wine; no drunken behavior.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Julie C. Dao's Song of the Crimson Flower is a fantasy companion story to Rise of the Empress series. It stands on its own, but a few characters from that series are in this book so reading it first will deepen the reader's appreciation of the those characters. It's not as dark as the Empress books and concentrates more on blossoming romance and adventure. Violence includes battles and a sickness called the "bloodpox" that include mentions of blood, pain, and suffering with gory descriptions. Sexy stuff is fairly light with a couple of kisses briefly described and a couple of embraces that are interrupted. The romance part is mostly the growing feelings between Lan and Bao. A major plot element involves a poppy-based, highly addictive substance that's illegal, but one community continues to make and export it. The story takes the strong stance that any potential benefits from the substance are far outweighed by the damage that addiction to it does to their society. Lan and Bao are positive role models, and other characters and locations represent a variety of Asian-inspired cultures.

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What's the story?

In SONG OF THE CRIMSON FLOWER, Lan's life so far (she's 18 now) has been very privileged and sheltered. She's known Bao most of her life, although not very well. Bao's a perfectly nice young man, but his lowly social status kept them from interacting much. When Lan learns of Bao's role in shattering all her dreams of her future, Lan's treatment of Bao will both tear them apart and set them on a long, difficult journey together. Along the way they'll have to find the mysterious river witch, convince the Empress that they're not spies or smugglers, and bring down a ruthless leader who only craves more power. Oh, and lift the curse that's been placed on Bao before it becomes permanent. Along the way they'll learn surprising truths about family, love, and what it takes to build a life together.

Is it any good?

Fantasy fans, especially those who liked the Rise of the Empress series, will will enjoy delving into this richly imagined fantasy world with a distinct Asian flair. Song of the Crimson Flower features magical abilities, a mysterious witch, blossoming romance, a ruthless leader, and the adventure of a lifetime. It's a separate story with different characters from the Empress series. Although it's set in the same world and a few characters from that series appear here, you don't need to read the other two books first to fully enjoy this one.

Author Julie C. Dao continues to create relatable, colorful characters and put them in a vivid and richly imagined world. The satisfying ending leaves the door open for continuing stories about Lan and Bao. A strong plot element involving illegal drugs and mild violence make it best for teens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the fictional "black spice" in Song of the Crimson Flower reflects the real-life opioid crisis. Do you agree with the policy banning it completely, or should research be allowed to continue in hopes of making it less addictive and a more effective medicine? How has addiction affected the world of the book vs. the real world?

  • Are Lan and Bao good role models? What are their character strengths and weaknesses? What do you like about them, or what don't you like?

  • Have you read either of the books in the Rise of the Empress series? Which did you like best? How does this one compare? If you haven't read them, would you like to now?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love Asian stories and fantasy romance

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