Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress #1)
By: Julie C. Dao
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
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.
This was another library find–man, do I love my Public library. I’d heard of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns once or twice, word of mouth or YA Twitter, but it was when I found it in the library that I decided to pick it up and read it. And man, am I glad I did. An antiheroine/evil empress in the making, seen sympathetically? yes, PLEASE.
At first I wasn’t sure if the story would be a kind of Cinderella tale, but quickly realized that, whatever fairy tale it was, Xifeng was not ultimately the protagonist. She was a clear antiheroine, divided in the beginning about what she wanted. But, ultimately, she knows she is fated to become Empress and decides that she is willing to bring that about however she has to. As much as I wanted to tell her ‘no, honey, not that way’, I do have a particular weakness for her kind of story, and I thought it was done exceptionally well.
What I thoroughly enjoyed was that time and time again, Xifeng is offered love over power, and it’s almost hinted that there are ways she could have achieved her ‘fate’ without taking the darker path that she took. She runs away with her childhood love, Wei, to the Imperial City–but then persuades him to become a soldier rather than stay with her. She becomes close to the Prince, but disdains his lack of ambition. She becomes like a daughter to his mother the Empress, only to ultimately decide to chase after the Emperor. There’s a semi-prophecy earlier where Xifeng is told that were she unaware of her fate, she might have achieved it better–but Xifeng’s knowledge of her fate dooms her. It was a really interesting look at fate and destiny and other such things.
I also loved how Dao balanced Xifeng on a knife edge–she’s definitely an antiheroine, who does some fairly twisted things (cough eating hearts cough), while also being a sympathetic character. It’s not quite enough for you to root for Xifeng, but maybe enough to hope that she eventually realizes love is worth more than power. But there’s also a subtle feminist critique in Xifeng’s actions–she has no power, no agency, except through what she can get from other people. For example, when she’s trying to decide whether to leave Wei, her love for him is balanced by her unwillingness to be subsumed by him. Her preoccupation with her beauty/face is also understandable since she’s been repeatedly told it’s the only thing of worth that she has. While I might wish that her ambition wasn’t seen as a negative thing that would lead to her ruin, Xifeng’s grasping for power was deeply understandable. It was also balanced by the other women she meets in the Harem–Lady Sun, whose power derives purely from her sexuality, and the Empress, who has been seen as unable to rule in her own right despite her intelligence.
And there’s a deeper undercurrent of mythology running through the book, which only becomes more apparent towards the end. Ultimately it seems that Xifeng is only going to be a pawn in a larger game between gods, and I really felt for her at that point. Even though her choices were entirely her own, towards the end it was revealed that she was very much being manipulated into them. Again, I enjoyed how much the reading of her ‘fate’ and the understanding that she would have a rival drove Xifeng’s more murderous decisions (and ultimately created her rival, as all the best villains do).
I haven’t waxed lyrical about the setting yet, but it is glorious–East-Asian Inspired, complex and with deep respect for the cultures Dao is basing it on. I loved the mythology and the stories and how they gave not only crucial worldbuilding, but then provided a punch at the end of the story.
Ultimately, the Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was a wonderfully written book about an antiheroine, based in a richly illustrated and unique world. It’s also a compassionate look at a character who doesn’t often get them (the evil queen/stepmother in Snow White). But as much as I enjoyed this book, I’m desperate to get my hands on the sequel, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Having seen how well Dao wrote the evil empress, I’m so excited to see what nuance she brings to Jade/Snow White. In addition, the end of Forest seemed to set up another, even more epic look into this epic world.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.