Last week I reviewed FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS by Julie C. Dao, but I was also inspired to compile a playlist. Now, when making book playlists, I like to use songs that fit both sonically and lyrically. FOTL is an Asian-inspired fantasy, but I don’t listen to much Asian music and my Chinese is not very good, so this was a bit more of a challenge! The end result has a lot of songs from movie soundtracks and Chinese pop; again, my Mandarin isn’t great, so my apologies if I misunderstood some of the songs (I had to rely on a lot of translations). Though the book doesn’t come out until October, I hope this playlist will be a fun homage to tide you over till then!
Beauty Song (Jia Ren Qu) – House of Flying Daggers OST
The evil queen in Snow White, of course, is willing to kill to be fairest of them all; her counterpart in FOTL, Xifeng, is a seamstress’s adopted daughter whose one asset is her beautiful face. This was sung by Zhang Ziyi’s character in the stunning House of Flying Daggers. Here are the lyrics translated:
An extraordinary beauty in the North…
The most beautiful being of the world
From her first glance the city bows before her
From her second glance the empire falls into ruins
But there aren’t such an empire or a city
what we can laud more than this beauty.
You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra cover) – Joanna Wang
I have no interest in watching You Only Live Twice, but my dad is a big James Bond fan and enjoys many of the iconic 007 theme songs as well. I love the dreamy original but I really like this cover. I thought the lyrics actually fit FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS really well! Xifeng is torn between two conflicting possible futures: the grand destiny her aunt urges her to seize and her love for a humble swordsmaker, Wei. “Make one dream come true” and “Love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on” totally seem like advice that Guma would give.
Di Yi Ci (The First Time) – Michael Wong
I haven’t listened to much Chinese pop, but I thought the sweeping, dramatic powerhouse ballads so popular in the genre would be a good fit for an Asian-inspired high fantasy–a lot of my usual Old World fantasy-sounding artists are very European/medieval in sound. At first I considered “Tong Hua (Fairy Tale”) because FOTL is a Snow White reimagining, but then I read the lyrics to “The First Time” and found that they perfectly Wei’s feelings for Xifeng since childhood. (As for “Fairy Tale”–I’m saving that song for the sequel!)
Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) – Florence + The Machine
I’ve been trying to avoid including songs based solely on their titles, but holy crap, these lyrics were perfect for a particular scene! (Without giving too much away, I really loved that scene/plot point because it’s a nod to the original Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale!)
Ju Hua Tai (Chrysanthemum Flower Bed) – Jay Chou
This was one song that I chose primarily for its sound, what with the grand traditional Chinese instrumentation (it’s from the film Curse of the Golden Flower–I haven’t seen it, but I have seen Gong Li’s costumes from the movie and they’re so ornate and over-the-top and gorgeous!) It just sounds so majestic and I envision it for when Xifeng enters the imperial court. The general melancholy tone of the lyrics could also work.
Starring Role – Marina and the Diamonds
I don’t actually like Electra Heart very much, and yeah, it’s kind of cliche to use that album for a playlist about a hero who uses her beauty to claw her way to the top. But I liked that this song could fit two different elements in FOTL: Xifeng and Wei’s romantic relationship, and the power struggles between the women of the court for the emperor’s favor.
Spirit of Water – Kitaro
New Age music is a genre I’m not at all familiar with, but I stumbled upon Kitaro and thought this track was perfect for a crucial, supernatural scene–not just because of the water sounds, but because of how (unintentionally?) ominous it is.
Mother Stands for Comfort – Kate Bush
One really important theme in FOTL is the mother-daughter relationship. Since mothers are notoriously absent in a lot of fairy tales, I appreciated that. (Fun fact: in the earliest version of the story, the jealous queen was actually Snow White’s own mother!) While this is a bit more techno-ish than I’d have preferred, I thought the creepy, haunting vocals and lyrics fit nicely with Xifeng’s complicated relationship with the abusive aunt who raised her.
After the Fall – The Devil’s Carnival: Alleluia! OST
Terrance Zdunich is an indie screenwriter/musician best known for the cult musical Repo! The Genetic Opera–I’ve never seen it, but I’ve listened to his musical work and enjoyed them. (I have some Goth sensibilities.) “After the Fall” is from another indie horror musical he worked on and it’s sung by the Devil. I like how his vocals are both sinister and seductive–listen to him purr “It’s always prettier after the Fall.”
Painted Heart – Jane Zhang
This beautiful song is from the movie Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection starring Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei, which shares a couple of themes with FOTL!
The Flower of Carnage – Meiko Kaji
You might recognize this song from Kill Bill Vol. 1, but it’s from a 1973 Japanese cult classic revenge film called Lady Snowblood. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a much more character-driven rather than action-heavy fantasy, but it’s surprisingly bloody. Well, I guess ‘surprising’ is a relative term here, as the original Brothers Grimm tale was pretty gnarly.
Esme – Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom is singing about a friend’s child, but this is just so tender and beautiful and I like to think of Empress Lihua singing some of these lyrics (“Kindness prevails! Kindness, kindness prevails”) to the baby girl she desperately wants. Her character is very different from the book’s more obviously formidable women like Xifeng, Guma or Lady Sun, but I loved her.
The Infanta – The Decemberists
The book opens with Xifeng envying the emperor’s new concubine being carried to the palace in a palanquin, so I considered putting this song at the beginning of the playlist. I ended up putting it at the end because I liked how it could work for both the ending of Xifeng’s story and the beginning of the next. I’ve tried to be vague when composing these long-winded explainers but an “Infanta” is a princess; as you might guess from the title of this duology, this story is about the rise of an empress.
Fucked My Way Up to the Top – Lana Del Rey
Though Xifeng has been conditioned by her aunt to believe her beauty is the only thing she has, she actually ends up using her intelligence more than her sexuality to attract the Emperor. I really liked that. But she does fuck over a lot of people and c’mon, when else am I going to get a chance to put this song on a YA playlist?
Mine – Sweet Tempest
I like to think of this song as the pop track that would play during Forest of a Thousand Lanterns’ end credits. It’s from The Neon Demon, which is a stupid movie, but I couldn’t help but be amused by the fact that it also shares some of the themes/motifs in FOTL. I did enjoy the soundtrack, and I thought this would be a sick song for the fantastic way this first book in the series ends!