Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Age Range: Young Adult
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.
Content Warnings: Mutilation, torture, depictions of starvation and poverty
If I had to describe this book in just a few words, it would be “the Evil Queen from Snow White meets Empress Wu” realness.
And yes, I’ve been watching too much RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Kidding aside though, this fairy tale retelling is one of my favorite reads of the month – and it’s probably going to make it to my list of faves for 2018. It’s an East Asian retelling of the story of Snow White’s wicked stepmother – her humble beginnings, how she rose to power, and how she had to sacrifice her heart, soul, and humanity to do it.
Xifeng is a peasant girl living on the fringes of the empire of Feng Lu with her aunt Guma. Guma, a witch, sees greatness foretold for Xifeng – specifically, she sees a future where Xifeng sits on the throne as Empress. Xifeng, sick of poverty and hardship, wants nothing more than to see Guma’s prophecy fulfilled. But even escape is fraught with complications: she both loves and hates Guma, who is by turns doting and abusive; and she loves Wei, the village boy who won her heart, but also knows that she cannot have him if she wants to become Empress.
Things come to a head when Xifeng has had enough of Guma’s abusive and finally decides to leave with Wei. They head off to the capital city, where they both catch the eye of royalty: the Crown Prince, an officer in the Imperial Army, is impressed with Wei’s sword skills and takes him on as a soldier, and is simultaneously intrigued by Xifeng’s beauty and intelligence and puts her in the service of his mother, the Empress.
Xifeng is now in the Imperial Palace, where she is meant to be, but there are several obstacles to the throne: there are the jealous eunuchs, currying favor with the current Empress; there are the Emperor’s two chief concubines, Lady Sun and Lady Meng; and, of course, there is the Empress herself, who, to complicate things even further, Xifeng comes to care for like a mother.
Once a lowly peasant girl, Xifeng cements her place as the fairest in the land and the foremost woman in the empire with ambition and dark witchcraft that strips away the girl that she once was. This is a story of the darkest sacrifices, the most evil of magic, and a girl willing to do anything to come out on top.
The thing that I really liked about Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was the beautiful, flowing prose. I would probably compare it to the writing style of The Wrath and The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh. And as I’ve mentioned numerous times in previous reviews, what really gets me about an author’s writing style is when the writing takes me into the book. Julie delivers on that, superbly.
I also love how Julie drew heavily on East Asian mythology for her world-building. I absolutely adore when an author uses her roots to populate her novels, and you can clearly see the cultural stories and legends from which Julie got inspiration. The universe is rich and well fleshed out, and it just really captures and inspires the imagination. The imagery is sometimes beautiful, and it’s sometimes dark and gaunt – but always, it’s lush and well-written.
Set against such a magnificent backdrop is Xifeng, a jewel of a main character. Her conflict is the main plot point of the story: Xifeng against Guma, Xifeng against Lady Sun, Xifeng against the Empress, and finally, Xifeng against herself. Normally, I’d be wary of such a character-driven plot. My standards for these kinds of books are much, much higher. But Julie delivers so much on Xifeng. Honestly? Xifeng is probably one of the most human characters I’ve ever encountered.
Xifeng is selfish and ambitious, that much is clear. But this self-centeredness is, ultimately, relatable. Don’t lie. Her obsession with her beauty and her future as a wealthy, powerful woman is a fantasy all of us have entertained at one point, although certainly we’d never go the lengths she has. She is not a character to root for, that’s for sure: she is spiteful, angry, and filled with hate. But you as the reader also become so acutely aware of the fact that if Xifeng hadn’t hardened her heart and cultivated cruelty, she would’ve been horribly mistreated and might even have died. This doesn’t make a completely sympathetic character, mind you, but it does lead to better context and understanding.
I highly recommend this magnificent, intriguing, intricately-woven fantasy and cannot wait for the sequel, out this November!
Buy Forest of a Thousand Lanterns here!