Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Author: Julie C. Dao

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retellings, YA

Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication date: October 2017
Hardcover: 363

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.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print

Review

“She knew her own worth. She would seize her destiny with all the strength and spirit within her, and bend them all to her will: every man kneeling and every woman overshadowed.”

Xifeng has a face that could tempt Emperors and command armies. Born of a beautiful but ruined mother and the lord who used and abandoned her, Xifeng has been raised by her aunt, Guma. All her life, Guma has told Xifeng that her destiny is much larger than their provincial town–she has divined that Xifeng will become Empress of the realm, that her fate is intertwined with a great sacrifice, and yet despite all her power, there is another who could destroy her. At first, Xifeng is hesitant and resentful of her Guma’s ruthlessness–for Xifeng’s upbringing includes training in poetry and the arts, but also means brutal beatings of her body (but never her face) and a life almost completely without affection. The only love and solace Xifeng finds is with Wei, a blacksmith from her village who vows to take Xifeng away from her cruel, cold life. Still, Xifeng hesitates every time Wei begs her to leave with him and become his wife out of obligation for her aging aunt, but also out of conflicting feelings of both love and hate for her as well–her aunt is abusive and Xifeng is caught in her trap, desperate for the moments of Guma’s kindness that Xifeng soaks up and interprets as love.

And yet… there’s one other reason that Xifeng refuses to become Wei’s wife. For all that she loves Wei and that he loves her, Xifeng knows that Guma’s readings of her destiny are true–she is destined for far greater things.

It is this hunger that spurs Xifeng to finally take Wei up on his offer to run away from their town and travel the road to the Imperial city, where they make new friends and face several dangers along the way. Again, Xifeng learns that her destiny could be one of greatness, but also of terrible darkness–she is warned that the power Guma has taught her comes at a price, that the conflicting feelings of hate and love she feels are part of her dual nature, and that either her darkness or her light will emerge based on a choice she will make. When Xifeng, Wei and their new friends finally arrive at the city’s gates, Xifeng finds she cannot simply give up her dreams of a grander destiny for the quiet life of a wife and mother–no matter how happy Wei makes her, she will not be a thing to be possessed by another. Instead, Xifeng embraces her own ambition and desires–she will meet her destiny head-on to achieve greatness, sacrificing little parts of her heart and soul along the way.

Ah, readers–take heart! Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is not a book for the faint of heart. It is a fairy tale about the creation of a villain, but not of the glossy, Disney-fied variety. No, this is a dark tale, featuring a anti-hero who is both sympathetic and reprehensible, compassionate and yet conniving. Reimagining the origin story of the Grimm Brothers’ Evil Queen, but set in an East Asian fantasy world, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is mesmerizing, horrific, and nearly perfect in its glorious dark splendor. In short: I loved this book.

There are distinct reasons why this novel works: superb world-building, an beautifully written main character, and the gradual way she slides down the slippery slope to darkness with each decision she makes.

From a world-building perspective, I loved the reinterpretation of the Evil Queen (ostensibly from Snow White). Dao creates Feng Lu, an Eastern Asian empire ruled by a charming and aggressive new Emperor who has risen to power from the lower nobility, and his aging Empress, who possesses the pure bloodline of royalty and who already has three sons with her prior husband and former Emperor. In order to beget heirs of his own, the Emperor is fond of various Concubines–it is towards this end that Xifeng initially sets her sights, though she vows she will never just be a Concubine for pleasure; she will be the Emperor’s wife and equal, and together they will ruthlessly expand Feng Lu’s might across their neighboring kingdoms and realms (which we do see in the form of ambassadors and army-readiness in this book). Beyond the geopolitical implications of the novel, Dao also manages to create a system of magic and a rich backdrop of mythology to Xifeng’s world–there are old gods vying for power and playing their own slow, desperate games; there are spirits and magics that are both beautiful and terrible to behold. Xifeng’s own nature and her powers manifest slowly in Empire of a Thousand Lanterns in the form of dark magic, taught to her by her Aunt–by taking life and consuming the heartblood of those deaths, Xifeng is able to absorb power and beauty, though it comes at a cost that Xifeng first does not fully understand. Only slowly, ever so slowly, does she begins to realize the toll of her actions.

And this is the true reason that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is so brilliant: its deeply flawed and conflicted central character. (As a frame of reference: I haven’t felt so torn about a main character since Breaking Bad‘s Walter White.) Xifeng is a victim of abuse–she has grown up with an Aunt that doled out pain in spades, only to pull Xifeng deeper into her web with moments of affection, followed by more cruelty. All her life, Xifeng is told that she has a grand destiny–one that is both impossible but also exhilarating for a young, beautiful girl in a small town. Xifeng also struggles with what she calls the monster inside her–she dissembles and acts kindly towards her Aunt as a defense mechanism, but also lashes out at others in small, cruel ways. She feels the monster inside hungry for more, and desperately tries to keep it at bay–it’s a struggle that is entirely sympathetic, and given her upbringing and the history of abuses she has endured, understandable.

And yet… there’s more to Xifeng than just this. Xifeng wants her destiny. She rails against being possessed or seen as a means to an end–she was being molded by Guma for wealth and glory that would inevitably transfer to her aunt; she feels trapped by a destiny tied to Wei, in which she will be closed in a house to raise his children, never to be seen as master of her own life. Xifeng’s struggle is one that women face not only in the fantasy empire of Feng Lu, but in the world today. Instead of choosing true love, Xifeng embraces her own ambition and legacy–and every so slowly realizes the cost of that choice. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Xifeng’s choices are that they are ultimately choices that can be rationalized and even sympathized–her yearning for more isn’t something inherently evil or wrong, and Xifeng plays her hand slowly and at half-measures… until those half-measures are no longer good enough, and no amount of rationalization can suffice.

Beautifully written, horrifically wrought, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is among my favorite top 10 books of 2017. Absolutely recommended for readers of all ages and persuasions.

Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection

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