ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress #1
Published by Philomel Books on January 1st 1970
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Goodreads. All opinions are my own.
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.
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.