Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Narrator: Kim Mai Guest
Running Time: 13 hours, 21 minutes
TRIGGER WARNINGS: Child abuse (physical and emotional), violence and gore
Goodreads Summary: 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.
All I can say is…Wow, guys. Wow. What a magnificent, spectacular debut! I was hesitant going into this one because I knew it was a villain origin story and I don’t tend to fall in love with those, but I’m shocked to say that I absolutely LOVED Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao. An East Asian inspired fantasy, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns tells the origin story of the Evil Queen from Snow White. And it was glorious. Dao has crafted a stunning and flawless debut that proves that she’s certainly one to watch!
I want to start out by talking about the characters. They were each so intricate and complexly built and, though you may not like all of them, you certainly can understood them and their motives.
Xifeng is the main character of the story. She begins her life as a poor girl living with her abusive Guma (translation: aunt), who is a dark witch. While others, including Guma, see Xifeng’s stunning beauty as the thing that defines her, the reader quickly becomes aware that Xifeng’s defining feature is not her beauty, but rather her deep ambition. Xifeng longs to leave Guma and her poor village behind her and to rise and leave her mark upon the world. This trait is compounded by the fact that Guma has forseen a great destiny for Xifeng, one in which Xifeng becomes empress of all the land. But there is also a darkness within Xifeng, one which wars to control her and which she must ultimately embrace in order to rise to her great destiny.
Like I said, I can’t say that I exactly liked Xifeng, but I did understand her and respect her. Xifeng is ambitious above all and desires to be free from the restraints that she feels would trap her, whether those restraints are Guma or the prospective of life as a wife or anything else. I respected her ambition, her intelligence, and her ruthlessness. She plays the game of power well and it is admirable. I loved how readers were given an inside view into Xifeng’s deep internal conflict between herself and the darkness within her that seeks to control her. With regards to that conflict, I can’t wait to see where the sequels take Xifeng and what decisions she will ultimately make.
I also enjoyed the many side characters Xifeng interacts with. Each of them, from those who were Xifeng’s enemies to those who were her friends, were so colorful and surprisingly complex. They all were characters within their own right and though they shined, they never overtook Xifeng as the main character, but rather enhanced her story and served to both move the plot along and develop Xifeng’s character. I’m really interested in seeing how many of them come into play in future books, as I am certain that this is not the last we’ll see of them and I have a feeling that many of them will come to play prominent roles in this series.
Moving on from the characters, the world-building was spectacular! Set in a world that mirrors ancient Asia, the world of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a rich and beautiful world where legends come to life. With Dao’s beautiful writing as my guide, I felt as though I was discovering a lovely, dark wonderland. I loved everything we learned about the world–from how it looked to its history and mythology. I can’t wait to explore and discover more of this incredible world!
As for the plot, it was wickedly delightful! There were so many twists and turns that had me gasping in shock. I found myself hanging on every word and not wanting to put the book down. There was a perfect mix of action and intrigue that held my interest. The pacing was also perfect–not too fast and not too slow, the story unfolding perfectly! Everything about the story left me wanting more–in the best kind of way! There was enough information revealed in this installment of the series that I was never confused, but enough remains a mystery that I’m absolutely dying for the next book so I can learn more!
Basically, the TL;DR version of this review is that I abso-effing-lutely loved Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. I’m anticipating the sequel so much that I swear it’s positively painful. Definitely grab this one if you get the chance!