Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (written by Julie C. Dao) is summarized as 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. And yes, it is a clear retelling of the classic Evil Queen story we know. There’s magic, a huntsman, a dwarf, and even a banished princess. But it’s so much more than that.
The story takes place on the fictional continent of Feng Lu with Xifeng as the anti-heroine. She starts life as a peasant girl living with her aunt who just so happens to be a witch of sorts. Her aunt beats her yet constantly tells her that she’s destined for greatness. According to the tarot cards, Xifeng will rise to the top as the Empress of Feng Lu, but she has some sacrifices to make.
One of those sacrifices may have to include Wei, the young man that has loved Xifeng since they were ten. Xifeng loves Wei, but she doesn’t love him in the exact way he wants her too. Xifeng is not satisfied with the idea of being just a wife and mother. She has plans, and they won’t be derailed—especially not by a boy.
“I have my own soul and my own destiny, and I’m tired of belonging to someone else.”
After a chance encounter with the Crown Prince, Xifeng makes her way to the imperial palace, and everything takes a dark, twisty turn from there…
Xifeng is beautiful, and she knows it. Not only does she know it, but she’s obsessed with it. Xifeng lives in an intensely patriarchal society, and her beauty is her greatest strength (in her eyes). Because of her narcissism, she doesn’t have any real friends, and there’s a lot of girl-on-girl loathing. Nearly every girl/woman she comes across is a threat to her that must be stamped out.
“If my beauty is my greatest weapon, vanity is the shield that protects me.”
Xifeng is ruthless and will stop at nothing—and I mean nothing—to get she wants. If you get in the way of her destiny or if she views you as a threat to her person, well…you’re operating on borrowed time. She’s not a likable character, and that’s just the point. Actually, the fact that she isn’t likable is one of the main strengths of the book. Anti-heroines bring a certain flavor to stories that (some) heroines just don’t have, and Xifeng delivers. She is definitely on a quest, but hers is not a quest for self-discovery or positive redemption. Hers is a story of craving power and prestige.
It’s like reading a story about Cersei Lannister. If that at all sounds intriguing to you, and you’re interested in an Asian-centric world, then Forest of a Thousand Lanterns will entertain you. It’s an intriguing story set in a lush, descriptive world that will leave you wanting more. Be warned though, there are a few gory scenes in the book (ahem, eating hearts), and it’s a little slow to start, but Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is most definitely worth finishing.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the first in a series, and I very much look forward to reading more.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review.