(Note: I received a free ARC in exchange for an honest review. This book contains brief scenes of non-consensual kissing and contact.)
Cute, swoony romance? Check. Kind, handsome prince? Check check! Serious underdog female MC with a ton of heart? Big ol’ check! All of these, plus an extremely engaging storytelling style (with plenty of action), are what made Maiden of Candlelight and Lotuses a truly entertaining, well-written book I enjoyed reading every time I picked it up.
I had a brief introduction to Anastasis Blythe’s (formerly Anastasis Faith’s) writing through free chapters of her Kindle Vella series, Guardians of Talons and Snares, which is set in the same world as Maiden of Candlelight and Lotuses. This was my first time reading a complete work by her, and I am officially a fan. Blythe excels at writing underdogs. Maiden of Candlelight and Lotuses has a plucky, compassionate heroine at its helm, and she is great fun to follow, even through the darkest parts of the Academy.
Protagonist Song Liena begins Maiden of Candlelight and Lotuses as the “half-barbarian” daughter of a poor millet-farming family in the north of Zheninghai. The Songs’ fate is tied to that of each harvest, and Liena never stops worrying about her family, long after a vision derails her trip to the matchmaker. The law requires Liena attend the national Academy for magic users, which means she has a chance to better her parents’ and grandmother’s lives.
Unfortunately for Liena, 16 is incredibly late for magic to develop, and she is more than a decade behind at the Academy. She loves learning and applies herself, but battle prowess (important for a low magic seer) is well out of her reach. The consequences of failure are huge: if expelled, Liena could end up a monster hunter, certain to meet a terrible end. When literally and figuratively warm Nianzu (and his dimples) takes an interest in her (along with mean girl Shu), Liena’s days get way more complicated, and not just because of her Magic Theory class. Nianzu is the equivalent of an ultra popular high school senior–and he’s also the Crown Prince of Zheninghai.
The world of the Zheninghai Chronicles is full of magic and mythology (protective or lucky creatures like dragons, phoenixes and qilin are fearsome monsters in Zheninghai). With its unforgiving academy for magic users, Maiden of Candlelight and Lotuses reminded me of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (but far less grim) combined with Tamora Pierce’s Tempests and Slaughter (but more romantic). And the romance is definitely squeal-worthy.
My one complaint is that Liena often reads as younger than 16 (prior to the end). She is sometimes described as whining or giggling, which made her sound a good bit younger to me. She also goes completely weak-kneed at the sight of Nianzu and talks herself right out of being the focus of his attention. She has a serious case of “who, me?” when it comes to the handsome prince. (On the other hand, the butcher’s boy back home didn’t notice her existence; her experience with boys is nonexistent.)
Otherwise, Blythe’s writing is smooth and descriptive. I particularly enjoyed her atmospheric similes and metaphors, like “knife-cold air” and “her mind was like a mushy bowl of rice.” She also excels at combat descriptions, never getting bogged down in minutiae that would ruin the sense of speed. Yet the scenes in which Nianzu helps her with her training are highly convincing. I felt sure the author had martial arts and self-defense experience.
This was a 5-star read for me, and I’ll be sure to dive into whatever comes next in the world of Zheninghai.