ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

ARC Review:  Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. DaoForest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
four-stars
Series: Rise of the Empress #1
Published by Philomel Books on January 1st 1970
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Goodreads
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an engaging Snow White retelling that focuses on the Evil Queen and her rise to power.  The story is set in a lush East Asian fantasy world and follows the journey of eighteen year-old Xifeng, a peasant girl who has been told by her aunt Guma, a witch who has the ability to read tarot cards and predict the future, that she is destined to become Empress of Feng Lu someday.  While Xifeng finds the idea of becoming Empress enticing, her aunt has also told her that her path to the throne can only be secured if she is willing to embrace and use the dark powers that apparently lie within her.  She also must be willing to abandon all that she knows from her current life, including the young man she has loved since she was a young girl.  Xifeng must decide what is most important to her: Does she want power so badly that she is willing to give up on love?  And if so, does she have it in her to embrace this dark magic and whatever may come from unleashing it?

 

Xifeng, the “Evil Queen” character, was definitely my favorite part of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.  Wow, what a character! I can’t say that Xifeng was an especially likable character, but she was a complicated one and for me anyway, there’s just something so compelling about complex characters. Xifeng is conflicted between following her heart to be with the man she loves and following her ambition to become the next Empress of Feng Lu.  Because she has grown up poor all her life, the idea that greatness lies in her future is a huge temptation.  However, to become Empress and achieve this greatness that she appears to be destined for means that she must give up all that she has known from her former life, including the love of her life.  Dao does a beautiful job of depicting how this inner conflict plagues Xifeng throughout the novel.  Even as Xifeng seems to have made her choice and be firmly moving in the direction she has chosen, thoughts of what she’ll be giving up if she continues down that chosen path linger in her mind.

As I’ve said, Xifeng isn’t always a likable character and I’ll admit right now that I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I do have to say that I admired her sense of cunning and her resourcefulness.  Once she makes her choice and is committed to it, Xifeng is determined to let nothing and no one get in her way.  I don’t want to give away any specific details, so I’m just going to say she’s not afraid to get a little blood on her hands if the situation calls for it.  This is a story about the rise of a villain, after all!  As I was reading and watching Xifeng hatch plan after plan to advance her objective, I just kept thinking “Okay girl, if you want it that badly, you go for it!”

A fabulous cast of secondary characters also rounds out this book nicely.  There’s Ambassador Shiro, a kind, elderly gentleman of dwarfish stature, who takes a liking to Xifeng and becomes a confidante and mentor of sorts. Then there’s the dashing and ambitious Emperor Jun, who Xifeng must use her beauty to win over if she is to become Empress, and the mysterious eunuch, Kang, who seems to be overly eager to become Xifeng’s bff when she starts working in the palace, which left me wondering throughout the story if his motivations were sincere or was he up to something?

We also have the delicate and nurturing Empress who Xifeng is also conflicted about, because at times she feels like the Empress is like the mother she never had, but then at other times, she knows the Empress must go if Xifeng is to follow her destiny and take her place.  And finally, there’s another of my favorite characters, Lady Sun, the Emperor’s favorite concubine and perhaps the biggest obstacle in Xifeng’s path to become Empress.  Lady Sun would love nothing more than to gouge out Xifeng’s eyeballs and send her packing.  Their rivalry makes for some very entertaining reading and those were the sections of the book that I really flew through.   I found all of the secondary characters to be so interesting; not one of them fell flat for me, which made for a wonderful reading experience.  I especially wanted to see more of Shiro

The world building in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is also rich and beautifully crafted, especially once Xifeng leaves her hometown to begin her new life at the palace working as a lady-in-waiting.  The story is steeped in Asian folklore and the overall effect was dark and mysterious and pure magic.  The Asian influences played such a predominant role in the story that I almost forgot at times that it was meant to be an Evil Queen retelling.  The world Dao creates is just so lush and unique that it doesn’t feel at all like a rehash of another story.

 

The only real issue I had with Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was that the pacing was a bit uneven at times.  I breezed through the first 50 pages or so, but then the next 50 were a much slower read.  This happened a couple of times as I was reading.  Thankfully the story itself was still so interesting that I kept pushing through and never felt the urge to give up on the book even when the pacing lagged.

 

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a wonderful read that I think would be enjoyed by fans of both retellings and anti-hero stories.  While it does borrow the basic premise of the Evil Queen’s story, it still reads as a fresh and unique story on its own even without thinking of it in terms of the Evil Queen.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. 

 

four-stars

About Julie C. Dao

Julie C. Dao is a proud Vietnamese-American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS is her debut novel. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.

ARC Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a feminist Snow White retelling

ARC Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a feminist Snow White retellingGirls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
four-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on September 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Retelling
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

I have to confess that Snow White has always been one of my least favorite fairy tales because I could never get into the idea of one woman deciding she needed to poison another woman just because she might have taken her place as “the fairest of them all.”  That said, as soon as I heard that Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass was being advertised as a feminist retelling of the Snow White fairytale, it immediately became a must-read book for me.  I just couldn’t wait to find out what a feminist retelling would entail.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass was everything I hoped it would be and more.  It’s a beautifully written, character-driven exploration of the relationship between two women who are doomed to be rivals.  Lynet is the Snow White character in the story.  She is the 15 year old daughter of the King of Whitespring.  Lynet is a free spirit who loves to run, climb, and have endless adventures.  She has no interest whatsoever in politics or in ever becoming Queen.  Much to her frustration, her father constantly reminds her how much she looks like her beautiful dead mother and how one day she will take her mother’s place and become Queen of Whitespring.  Lynet doesn’t want to hear it because she just wants to grow up to be her own person, not a mirror image of a mother she never even met.  If she had to choose to be like anyone else, she would, in fact, choose to grow up to be like her strong and fierce stepmother, Mina.

Mina is, of course, the stepmother/Evil Queen figure in the story, and she also very unexpectedly turned out to be my favorite character.  Bashardoust writes such a rich and intricate backstory for Mina that even though she eventually ends up on a similar path to the stepmother in the original tale, it’s easy to see how she ends up in such a predicament.  We meet Mina while she is Queen of Whitespring, but the story quickly takes us back to when Mina was about Lynet’s age and being raised by her father, a well-known, often feared, magician in the kingdom. Mina’s father is cold, controlling, and sometimes hurtful.  In a particularly spiteful moment, he tells Mina that she nearly died of heart failure at age 4, and that to save her, he used magic to replace her dying heart with a glass one.  He tells Mina that because she has no actual heart, she cannot love and cannot be loved.  He goes on to tell Mina that all she can hope for is to make people love her because of her beauty.

When Mina’s father uses his magic to help the King one day, the King decides to repay him by offering him a place to live on the royal grounds.  Once living there, Mina comes up with the idea that if she can make the King fall in love with her, she can someday become Queen and thus earn the love of all of those in the kingdom.  Mina’s plan starts to fall into place and she and her stepdaughter Lynet actually become quite close, that is, until Lynet becomes old enough to become a threat to the throne.  Even though Lynet swears she has no interest in becoming queen, the threat she presents to Mina, who is so desperate to be loved, still starts to drive a wedge between them.

Are Lynet and Mina truly doomed to be rivals or can they figure out a way for each of them to get what they most want?

 

LIKES

My favorite part of Girls Made of Snow and Glass is the complexity of the relationship between Mina and Lynet.  Their relationship is ultimately the driving force behind this story and it’s no simple battle about who’s the fairest of them all.  These two women, care about one another, and as Lynet grows up, have truly become like family.  When Mina comes to the realization that Lynet may be the greatest obstacle to her finding that love she is so desperate for, it absolutely guts her.  She doesn’t want to have to hurt Lynet in any way to get what she wants.  Their relationship is just beautiful and heartbreaking.

Equally glorious to the complex relationship between the two main characters is the magic!  Okay, so there’s no dwarves, no poison apple, and no kiss from a handsome prince to break a curse.  A bit of a bummer maybe, but the magic Bashardoust has given to her characters more than makes up for it.  It’s just so creative and well, for lack of a better word, magical, haha!

As I’ve already mentioned, Mina’s father used magic to save Mina by giving her a glass heart.  As you probably also gleaned from the book’s title and synopsis, if Mina is the girl made of glass, then there is another girl who is made of snow.  Lynet is of course that girl.  There’s a very good reason why the King keeps telling Lynet she looks just like her mother.  The King had called Mina’s father to him, desperate to save his Queen, who was dying.  Mina’s father was unable to save her, but at the King’s request, used his magic to create an infant girl in the Queen’s likeness.  Using snow, Mina’s father gave the King what he wanted, Lynet.

Mina’s father somehow transferred a portion of his magic to each girl when he used it on them, thus infusing both Lynet and Mina with powers of their own.  That’s all I’m going to say about the magic for now, but trust me, it’s important and it’s awesome and these two young women are just badass, especially when they start using these powers.

Another element of the story that was really a highlight for me was an unexpected f/f relationship between Lynet and a young female surgeon named Nadia.  The romance comes about and develops in such a natural, low-key way and doesn’t at all distract from the rest of the plot, and I just thought it was beautifully written.   

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

I only had a couple of issues with this story, the main one being that the men in it are just so UGHHH.  The King was basically a good man and he meant well, but at a certain point, it really started to bother me how much he kept obsessing on how much Lynet reminded him of her dead mother and how she was destined to take her mother’s place someday.  I know he didn’t mean it in an incestuous way, but it was still a little creepy.

Don’t even get me started on Mina’s father.  If you’re one who likes to have characters to hate, he’s your guy.  Aside from the fact that he did save Mina’s life when she was a little girl, there’s nothing else redeeming about him. He’s just a selfish, manipulative jerk.  He also had a creepy obsession with Lynet since he “made” her.  I have to admit, I spent much of the book wishing something horrible would happen to him.

Aside from the horrid men in the story, I did think the pacing was a little slow early on in the story and that it took me a little while to get used to Mina’s narrative being told from a present-day perspective as well as one from when she was 16.  Once I got used to the way Mina’s story was being presented, it was no longer an issue for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Girls of Snow and Glass is a book I’d recommend without hesitation to anyone who enjoys stories that are character driven.  I’d also recommend it to those who love fairytale retelling and even to those who say they’re burnt out on retellings. Even though this story borrows the overall idea of a young girl being in the way of her stepmother, Bashardoust has crafted such a creative story that if I hadn’t known this was a Snow White retelling going in, I don’t know that I would have guessed it.  It’s a uniquely fresh take on a timeless tale.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Melissa Bashardoust, and Flatiron Books for allowing me to preview Girls Made of Snow and Glass. This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything—unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

four-stars