“Song of Silver, Flame Like Night”: The new fantasy novel examines the cost of power and imperialism

A fallen kingdom. Ancient gods. Sleeping demons.

This is the mythical world of “Song of Silver, Flame Like Night”, a new fantasy novel inspired by the Chinese story by Amélie Wen Zhao, which hit the shelves on January 3rd.

The book follows a young girl and a mysterious practitioner of magic as they bargain with powerful forces to uncover the mysteries buried in their war-torn nation.

While writing the book, Zhao drew heavily on xianxia and wuxia—two popular genres of Chinese fantasy.

“A common theme across the xianxia genre and its sister genre wuxia is the pursuit of justice,” Zhao says. “Much of that genre centers around these legendary heroes who cultivate their power to fight evil and corrupt officials in service of the greater good and for the people.”

Amélie Wen Zhao (Courtesy of Charlotte Yuyin Li)

Zhao adds that xianxia and wuxia are mostly derived from the common people rather than the imperial class or nobility. Fearing that the genre would arouse anti-imperialist sentiments, Zhao says several Chinese dynasties restricted this type of work.

The story within “Song of Silver, Flame Like Night” is inspired by a dark chapter in history during what was known as China’s Century of Humiliation, a period that began with the Opium Wars in 1839, after which the Chinese land was annexed by the Western and Japanese powers.

The ensuing turmoil ensnared Zhao’s own family, something he learned while growing up in Beijing.

“Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories were of me perched on my grandmother’s lap in her backyard house, listening to stories of her life. And my grandmother was a war orphan who fled her home in Kaifeng, Hunan, to escape the invading Japanese forces,” Zhao says. from us. It is part of us. It lives and breathes through our generations and shapes who we are.

This period of imperialism inspired the central questions at the heart of “Song of Silver, Flame Like Night”. How far will people go to reclaim power when it is taken from them? And what will it cost them when they take that power?

Zhao says the questions driving the story are inspired by the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang.

“There has to be some form of balance instead of extremes and absolutes,” Zhao says. “Too small [power], and it falls to those with more power than you – in this case, the outside colonizers who have come and taken over the land. But too much and it corrupts you, because at some point you shift into the pursuit of power for the sake of holding on to power whatever the cost may come.

“Song of Silver, Flame Like Night” is a novel born out of the pain of the pandemic.

“Living in the United States at the time, we were… exposed to a wave of anti-Asian rhetoric. And I just remember waking up every day to the news that people like me were being attacked in new and horrendous ways,” Zhao says. “I felt really angry and helpless. And so I wrote two lines at a time. I wrote ‘She wouldn’t be plus the flower. She would become the blade.’”

But Zhao says the story isn’t just a reflection of pain; it is a celebration of the Chinese people and their rich cultural heritage.

“I wrote this book not just to strengthen us, but to celebrate us,” she says. “As a Chinese author, I think it’s my duty to commemorate the spirit of my people and remind us that in dark times, as long as we live and carry on our legacy, there will be hope.”


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this broadcast interview with Catherine Welch. Saxena has also adapted it for the web.


Excerpt from the book: “Song of Silver, Flame Like Night”

By Amelie Wen Zhao

Excerpt from “Song of Silver, Flame Like Night” by Amélie Wen Zhao. Copyright © 2023. Published by Delacorte Press. Reproduced by agreement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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