FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS (#1 RISE OF THE EMPRESS) by JULIE C. DAO
A REVIEW by ALEXA DUNCAN
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao is one of those books I’d seen everyone talking about when it was first released in 2017. An East Asian inspired retelling of Snow White’s Evil Queen? Sign me up! Despite its intriguing premise and pretty cover, I never picked the book up until now, swayed by some desire to read a fantasy novel again. I’ve been in a bit of a rut with fantasy, you see, and have had all kinds of trouble getting into them lately. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has changed that. From the first chapter onward, I had no trouble getting into it, and once I started reading, I found it difficult to stop.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is, as I mentioned above, a Snow White retelling. Not just any Snow White retelling, but a retelling of the tale from the point of view of the Evil Queen. From the very beginning of the novel, we know it isn’t going to end well. We know our heroine, eighteen-year-old Xifeng, will not come out of her story with her morality intact. It’s knowing these things that makes the novel all the more interesting. When we first encounter Xifeng, she is a beautiful girl slaving away in her aunt Guma’s house, learning the skills of a noblewoman while being brutally abused if she gets something wrong. Guma insists that Xifeng has a destiny beyond the confines of their tiny village, a fate that will raise her to the highest rungs of society. Together with her childhood lover Wei, Xifeng sets off to fulfill her destiny as the would-be empress of Feng Lu, descending down a path of darkness that threatens to swallow her whole.
Let it be known right off the bat: I loved this book. I especially loved Xifeng, in all her complicated glory. At first, Xifeng is a poor girl from a little village with so many different emotions warring inside of her. She’s angry and timid, ferocious and kind. She doesn’t believe her aunt when she says Xifeng is destined for greatness, but she goes on a journey to the Imperial City anyway, and when she gets there, Xifeng grows even more as a character. The girl we know from the village at the beginning of the book is definitely not the empress we see at the end. Xifeng has a darkness inside of her, a darkness she spends much of the novel trying to fight. Once she embraces it, she becomes a character you can’t help but read more and more about. It’s rare in YA to see an anti-heroine, let alone one as ruthless as Xifeng. She kills people, literally eats their hearts, and does whatever she has to in order to become empress of Feng Lu. She gets what she wants, but not without a cost. A lesser novel may have her back down at the last second, but not this one. Xifeng is ruthless until the end and I loved it.
There are other characters here, including Wei, Xifeng’s lover, the Empress, the Emperor, and all his concubines, but none are so compelling as Xifeng herself. Aside from the characters, I loved the setting of Forest and all the detail woven in. The East Asian influences were such a breath of fresh air, and Dao weaves everything together with her beautiful writing. The descriptions here are lavish without being overwhelming and I felt as though I could see everything she described. Not only was this book intricately plotted and well-paced, it’s incredibly satisfying. Though dark, I loved seeing Xifeng’s destiny come true. I loved that she got her way no matter what. I loved it so much that I want to pick up the sequel as soon as I can, but you can pick up the first book, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, at the Argenta Library today!