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.
I absolutely loved Julie C. Dao’s debut novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns! It is no exaggeration for me to say that I devoured it; I read it in about 24 hours.
While it may be based on the Snow White fairy tale, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is full of originality. Rather than rooting her story in European geography, culture, or utilizing white characters, Dao set her debut novel in the fantastical East Asian-inspired continent of Feng Lu. Dao’s character names — Xifeng, Shiro, Kang — are all of Chinese or Japanese origin, which is rare to see in a YA novel and especially rare to see in a YA fantasy novel. Likewise, rather than fairies and sprites, which all come from European folk tales, Dao’s story is filled with mystical demon guardians and serpent gods who walk the earth and fight for power. I found this to be so refreshing! It is exhausting and frustrating to see white eurocentric fairy tale re-tellings, one right-after-another; the young adult fantasy genre is inundated with them! But Dao’s novel was a breath of fresh air. I loved every detail about the world that Dao created. The magic, the lore and legends, the creatures, the characters, the geography; it is intricate and seamlessly woven into the narrative. I loved it all!
Beyond the world, my other favorite aspect of Dao’s novel was that it focuses on the evil queen, not the heroine princess. Instead of jumping straight into the Snow White retelling, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns gives us the background and the origin of the evil queen. Dao chronicles Xifeng’s climb to power, giving her readers a glimpse at the evolution of a poor but beautiful young woman as she rises to the station of a powerful empress. Xifeng makes increasingly merciless decisions as she works to fulfill the destiny that her aunt, a witch by the name of Guma, has predicted for her through countless dealings of the tarot cards; a destiny that Xifeng believes she truly deserves above all others.
“She was a monster, a bride of the darkness, and she rose to face her destiny as though it were the blood-red sunrise of a new day.”
Dao will have you rooting for the character that you know is the “bad guy,” or at least will eventually become one, but Xifeng is such a fascinating and complex character and Dao writes her so fully and beautifully that it is hard to not want to see her succeed, even though she is merciless, violent, and will stop at next to nothing for power and station. I almost hope that Xifeng wins in what I expect will be a battle with her Snow White esq stepdaughter in the upcoming novel(s)! It’s always fun to root for the bad guys from time to time.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the first in a series and Dao does a great job at both closing out the story and setting up the familiar Snow White-esque pieces (a friendly dwarf, a banished princess, etc.) for what I’m sure will be a fantastic sequel. I can’t wait for the next installment of this series!
Do yourselves a favor: pick up a copy of this book and lose yourself in its world for the next couple of days. You’ll love it!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress #1)
Publisher: Philomel Books (October 10, 2017)
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales & Folklore, Young Adult, Magic
Read… over the course of a weekend while… grieving the loss of a loved one.
Purchase your copy here.
Author: Julie C. Dao