Amelie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir trilogy waves before its first chapter was ever released, thanks to a storm of pre-release criticism and vitriolic Twitter feuding that eventually caused the publication of the first book in the young adult series to be delayed by several months back in 2019. But if the only reason you’ve heard of Zhao as an author, or of Blood Heir specifically, is due to this particular controversy, its role in the much larger industry debate about representation in teen fiction or the supposed perils of cancel culture, it might be time to reevaluate your stance on this series.
Now, almost three years after Blood Heir’s release, Crimson Reign, the final novel in Zhao’s trilogy has hit shelves and, for those who are curious, it’s pretty great, providing a meaningful ending to the story of Crown Princess Anastacya Mikhailov even as it wrestles with larger thematic questions of belonging and leadership. An action-packed tale full of angsty romance and richly drawn supporting characters who’ve come to matter just as much to the story as Ana herself does, this is a final installment that sticks the landing, with more than a few intriguing twists (and bittersweet moments) along the way.
Set in a world where people known as a vaguely magical subgroup known as Affinites have the ability to control various elements of the physical and natural world, Ana begins the story as an exiled princess demonized for her power to control human blood. She ends it as a woman in charge of her own destiny, having risked her life to secure a better future for the people she once considered it her right to rule. A final installment that is as much about questions of corruption, philosophy, and sacrifice as it is bloody battles, Crimson Reign is a remarkably surprising conclusion to a story that consistently made unexpected choices, from expanding its world to include multiple lead characters and perspectives.
We had the chance to chat with Zhao herself about how it feels to close the door on Ana’s story, the messages she hopes fans will take away from the Blood Heir series, and what’s next for her as a writer.
Paste: First, congratulations on the end of such a great trilogy! Particularly given the controversy that surrounded Blood Heir’s initial release—which can’t have been easy to navigate—this just all is such a triumph in my book. How does it feel to bring this journey full circle as a writer?
Amelie Wen Zhao: Thank you very much! I feel the same way: triumph at having been able to share my stories with themes from a different point of view, a different part of the world, and a different time of history, with readers who may not have learned about these realities before.
The Blood Heir trilogy is a story of courage against real-world injustices, of a cast of outsiders trapped in different circumstances as a result of hidden and systemic oppression coming together to fight for a better world. Above all, it is the story of holding on to hope even during the darkest of times.
Ana’s journey and her growth as a character is so satisfying to watch unfold. What do you think is the biggest difference between the Ana of Blood Heir and the Ana of Crimson Reign?
Ana’s worldview has been flipped on its head by the time we get to Crimson Reign. In Blood Heir, she defines herself as a rightful heir to her Empire fighting to depose a tyrannical monarch from the throne. She is very much looking inward and driven by her personal desires: her love for her brother, the puppet Emperor suffering under the villain; the desperate need to return everything to the status quo with what remains of her family on the throne; and the fear of her own monstrous blood Affinity. This Ana equates righteousness and justice with simply fighting off the usurper and taking back her throne.
In Crimson Reign, Ana is shaped by loss. She’s lost her dearest friend and meets people who have suffered under the systemic injustices that have flourished under her family’s rule. Even more, she loses the characteristic that has—whether consciously or subconsciously—defined her for her entire life: her blood Affinity. In fantasy (and real life!) the right to rule is often determined by power, of which Ana had plenty; losing her power allows her, for the first time, to see herself for who she is, and what kind of a leader she could be by virtue of not her physical strength, but her choices.
She begins to look outward for her purpose, realizing that her family legacy that she has been fighting for has always been a bloody one, complicit in the suffering of her people. And the best thing for her people, Ana concludes, may mean sacrificing the thing that she once believed would set everything right again: her throne.
One of the most expected aspects of this story for me is how much of it is about genuine philosophical and political debate. And that Ana has grown enough to realize that maybe her story (or her legacy as she says several times) isn’t so much about who she’ll be remembered as, as what she’ll be remembered for.
Tell me a little bit about how this princess fighting to reclaim her throne story became something very different.
Flipping the “princess reclaiming her throne” trope on its head was one of the most satisfying aspects to pull off in this series—and one of the most important themes I wanted to explore.
Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely love fantasies with royalty and political intrigue and scheming for the throne! But for very personal reasons, I wanted to step back and examine the monarchy itself—and whether the goal of getting back the throne is the best decision for her empire … or if it’s only the best decision for Ana. Throughout Blood Heir and Red Tigress, we’ve seen the calamity a ruthless tyrant can bring about with a monarchy, as well as the broken system that the Mikhailov rulers have left behind; we, through Ana’s eyes, have come to realize that the goal of obtaining the throne is only good for an empire and its people if one assumes an eternally benevolent monarch.
I wanted Ana to interrogate this, and I wanted to write an ending filled with hope … because many such stories of fighting injustice and for a better tomorrow do not get their happily ever afters in real life. This book and this story hold very special meaning for me, as it is dedicated to my fiancé and his family for showing me the strength in revolutions. Their reality wasn’t a storybook-perfect ending, and so I wanted to give them a happily ever after in the only way I really could: through my words
I feel like the ending—of both Crimson Reign specifically and the larger trilogy—is perfect, but it’s not at all what I would have guessed would happen when I first started reading these books. Tell me a little bit about how you see Ana’s choice (and Ramson’s as well I suppose) of a future?
To be honest, it’s not the ending I had envisioned either, hah! When I began writing Blood Heir about eight years ago, I thought I had an idea of how it might end—but that completely changed in the course of writing, as well as through inspiration by real-life events. And I think this ending is so much better for the characters as well—it almost came naturally as a result of their growth and what they’d been through.
Ana’s journey was never truly about gaining back the throne—her story wasn’t meant to end there. Her arc was all about discovering the injustices of her empire and fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. She’s perfectly imperfect—and I made her that way—but what she does have is a lot of empathy, a fierce heart of justice, and the ability for action … less so court intrigue and politics (sorry Ana!). So establishing a republic—a democracy—and handing over the reins to her people was the best way for the empire to begin healing itself, for those who had remained voiceless for so long to finally be able to speak up.
But the injustices in the world don’t end there—and if there’s one thing Ana’s great at, it’s fighting with her blood Affinity. Going off to hunt traffickers that continue to exist in the shadows of the laws was a reminder of how real-world problems continue to exist, and a way of giving readers hope and courage to continue fighting them like Ana and Ramson will be long after the last pages of the book.
How did you see/approach Ana and Ramson’s relationship in this final book? I honestly loved that their problems/roadblocks were never about whether or not they loved one another (because it was so obvious they did!)
I’ll just start by saying I love angsty fictional relationships, but I absolutely need mine to go with what makes sense for the character arcs. In Blood Heir, Ana and Ramson began to develop feelings for each other, but they simply had so much baggage that it would have been unrealistic for them to come to love each other before they could even learn to love themselves. In Red Tigress, we saw their jagged edges come together at last. But one thing that’s always been important to me in relationships is for the partners to have their own goals, and for them to complement each other’s paths in life. Ana and Ramson chose their own goals over love for now because I absolutely did not want them to give up what they had been chasing for so long … for love. Yet.
In Crimson Reign, Ana and Ramson come to realize they truly love each other, that this is the healing, empowering kind of love they’ve been searching for. But Ana has committed to being the leader of a revolution and she realizes her life is no longer hers; she is the Red Tigress of Cyrilia, therefore she must fight for and make choices for her people. These roadblocks, as you call it, are all so real to their character arcs and so significant that it makes the ending all the more satisfying: when, finally, Ana and Ramson have the freedom to choose each other.
Over the course of this series, it’s evolved from being a story about one girl to a story about a whole ensemble of semi-secondary characters including Linn, Kais, Daya, and others. Was this shift/broadening in focus always the plan or did it sort of change over time?
It definitely broadened over time, and I think it’s one of the best aspects of [writing a] series: you get to know a whole ensemble cast of characters that push and pull the plot in different directions. Like Ana and Ramson, each of these semi-secondary characters are a reflection of the injustices in their world that trap them in their circumstances. I wanted to make sure each of them got a voice and a chance to fight back, to choose their paths.
Personally, I teared up several times over Linn’s subplots (any time that quote about the sparrow’s wing showed up, basically!). But did you have a favorite secondary character/secondary arc in this trilogy?
You guessed it! Linn is my absolute favorite secondary-turned-primary character in this trilogy. She actually almost didn’t exist in the series; I began writing Blood Heir at a time when there weren’t many characters who looked and acted like me in English YA fantasy books, and so I didn’t even imagine myself existing in my own stories.
Most of the YA fantasy characters I grew up reading (and loving!) were blond and loud and sassy! But I kept thinking of a quiet, steady East Asian assassin slip of a girl, and I kept thinking: what if? So I gently wrote her in, very late in the first book. And her arc just bloomed from there. There still aren’t many quiet, timid East Asian girls who get to fight back and be heroes in the stories we read, so I’m beyond proud of Linn and everything she stands for.
How do you feel you’ve grown or changed as a writer in the years since the Blood Heir trilogy started?
I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at my craft and I know the process now! Blood Heir took me nearly four years to write, and another year and a half to revise once it sold to a publisher—as a debut, I sometimes feel like I had no idea what I was doing! I’m still honing my craft and learning so much—and I always will be—but I at least have a process I can hold myself to.
What’s the one thing you hope readers take away from this trilogy?
On the last page of Blood Heir, Ana reflects on how much suffering and evil and darkness existed in her empire—but also that there was so much good, the slivers of light that gave her hope for a better tomorrow. And she decides: “This world—this beautiful broken world that harbored so much of the gray—was the only one they had. And it was one she would continue to fight for.”
What’s next for you as a writer? Can you tell us a bit about your next series and what to expect from it?
I am beyond excited for my next Chinese fantasy series, Song of Silver, Flame Like Night. Set in a conquered land loosely inspired by the historical timeframe of China’s Century of Humiliation, it is the story of a girl and a boy fighting against colonialism with ancient magic inspired by Chinese mythology, Taoism, and Buddhism.
It is an exploration of identity amidst the throes of imperialism, an interrogation of government and history, and a tribute to the incredibly complex heritage of my people. Aesthetically, it is a love letter to the beauty of my culture. Expect more tortured boys and a cheeky girl, angst and moral grayness, and themes of philosophy and politics—out Spring 2023 from Random House/Delacorte Press!
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.