This book was beautifully written, but maybe not written for me, if that makes sense. In some senses, it is a very long fairy tale about two born for each other lovers.
The lovers are both noble (one, technically royal; the niece of the emperor and his heir, due to a lack of children) and both female. This is not presented as being truly insurmountable. I would compare it to being lesbian in the early nineties or eighties. People know ‘it’ exists and maybe even know some people who are queer, but its acceptance is limited and so are civil protections (which is not to diminish the challenges and harms that LGBTQ+ people faced and still face).
There is some kind of a dangerous threat to the empire from demons who are nearly impossible to kill and whose blood can actually transform someone into a demon. Which all should be a bigger deal than it is. I mean, it appears as a trigger for an important plot point, but the presence of incredibly dangerous demons feels like it should be more of an ‘all hands on deck’ situation for any political body than it is treated here.
I have, until now, skipped over the second item for which this book was best known when it first came out (the first was the queer love story). That is that it is not a western fantasy, but takes places in an empire based on China.
And it gets one big thing very, very right. China is huge. China is diverse. China has tropical jungles, freezing mountains, grasslands, temperate zones, steppes… pretty much every kind of biome you could imagine. From this follows there are many different cultures and languages. Generally, when one thinks of China, in a western context, it is of what primarily emerged from Han culture (I say this being not at all a China expert). This books gets it right. The two protagonists are from different cultures. One is from the ‘Han’ imperial culture. The other is darker skinned and from the steppes.