Today I’m extremely excited to review FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS by Julie C. Dao! This has been on my most-anticipated YA list pretty much since the deal was announced, so I was ecstatic to win a signed ARC! This was a great read and one you definitely shouldn’t miss.
First, some background: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an East Asian fantasy retelling of the Evil Queen in Snow White, set in a magical Chinese-inspired world. This first installment of a duology reimagines the villain of the fairy tale as Xifeng, a lowly peasant girl in the kingdom of Feng Lu. Despite her humble origins, Xifeng has been told by her abusive aunt, the witch Guma, that her beautiful face marks her for greatness. Her aunt has raised her in preparation for her destiny, but seizing power would require Xifeng to give up a future with Wei, the humble swordsmith who loves her, and give into her dark side…which turns out to be far more frightening and powerful than she even imagined.
I could probably stop this review right here. I mean, right off the bat, the premise is killer. Asian/Chinese-inspired fantasy? An antiheroine–no, an outright villainess protagonist? I really could just say that the book lives up to its wicked concept and that should be enough to sell it. But I want to get into the other things I loved about it.
First of all, I loved Dao’s writing. I was immediately was hooked by the lush world-building (ASIAN/CHINESE INSPIRED FANTASY, I feel like I can’t state this enough) and the gorgeous prose. I fell in love with the first chapter ever since it was released along with the cover reveal, but I think I appreciated the writing even more now because I’m taking a Chinese Poetry class. There’s some poetry in the novel and I really loved that–besides really enjoying the bits of verse themselves and the role they played in the story, they really did sound to me like classical Chinese poetry.
I also really enjoyed the fairy tale elements! I wasn’t sure how big a role the retelling aspect would play in the book, as the original story doesn’t really have much backstory for the queen and so this is pretty much an entirely new plot. But the story actually did weave in motifs and foreshadowing from the original fairy tale (as in, the Grimm Brothers version–so a lot more gore) to clearly link Xifeng to her storybook counterpart. It doesn’t overpower the narrative–again, the plot is entirely its own beast–but as someone who enjoys retellings, I found that element really fun, because it made me want to guess how everything would fall in place in the sequel!
One unavoidable problem of the fairy tale retelling/origin story is that it can feel like you know where everything is going–like there’s a foregone conclusion. Destiny plays a huge role in this book, so I did feel that, but I wasn’t bothered by it because ultimately, as much as I enjoyed the basic premise of the plot, what really grabbed me was the characters. Xifeng is a great character: I thought the balance between her darker qualities befitting a future villainess and her conflicting desires was really well done, but I also really liked that she’s clever and astute. But there’s a lot of attention in making the supporting cast complex as well, which I really enjoyed.
I haven’t seen a lot of dramas, but I’ve read enough to know that the struggle for favor–and by extension, power–amongst the wives, concubines, and even maids of an imperial household is a very popular plot in Chinese fiction. Since this is such an enduring theme, I did worry that the portrayal of the court intrigue could risk being one-note: you know, “women are so catty” faux-insight, the assumption that ‘good’ female characters have to be weak or dumb or boring, etc. But the other women in the story are allowed to be as human as Xifeng. I loved that. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there were so many characters and relationships that I particularly enjoyed in this book. Even at their most monstrous, I did feel for them. This is a society that only values women for their beauty (I was referring to Feng Lu, but I might as well have been talking about our real world), and it’s all too inevitable that in a ruthless world, women have to play a ruthless game just to survive.
And there’s magic and darkness and blood. Quite a lot of blood, actually. Beauty, blood, and powerful women–gah, it’s like this book was written for me.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns comes out on October 10! Thank you so much to Julie C. Dao for the ARC, and for bringing this beautiful book into he world!