Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication date: 22 September 2017
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Page count: 363 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
This is a spoiler-free review.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was a book I had extremely high hopes for. Billed as an east-Asian retelling of the ‘evil queen’ myth so prevalent in fairy tales. I love a good villain/anti-heroine and I feel like we just don’t get enough of them in fantasy, particularly YA fantasy. So with high hopes for Xifeng, I eagerly dove in.
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.*
I am so happy to say that despite the hype, I absolutely loved Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. It had pretty much everything I could have wanted and more. The world-building is lush and gorgeous, the court politics are frustrating and underhanded, and the characters are delightfully devious and selfish. It’s like someone hand-picked everything I love in fantasy books and put it all together in a single story. It really is the story I have been wanting for ages.
I loved the world and the stories that went along with it. The creatures Xifeng meets on her journey, the gods, and the mythology that went with it were wonderful.
The imperial court, where the majority of the story takes place, is an absolutely fascinating place. I loved the factions within the Emperor and Empress’s courts and the cutthroat environment. It is truly a place you can see a woman like Xifeng doing well for herself, and I want to know more.
Xifeng herself is the forces that makes this book work so well. She’s cruel, cutthroat, and obsessed with her beauty, as it will help lead her to her great destiny. In short, she’s perfection and I loved her. If you’re like me and getting tired of the perfect YA heroine, Xifeng is the perfect remedy. What makes her so interesting to me is that she is often at a crossroads — she has to opportunity to make a decision that will lead her on a dark path, but also the opportunity to do the right thing. And, as I’m sure you guessed, she often picks the dark path. The best thing about her is that she knows what she is, and even if she has some moments of wavering, she is confident in what she believes she must do. I love everything about her.
The one thing that holds this book back from a five-star rating is the romance. I really, really didn’t like Wei. Xifeng is such a smart, capable, and cunning woman, so why does she keep moping about over this boy who wants nothing more than to control her? She knows this — she reflects upon it often — but she still feels conflicted about him and their romance. I just didn’t feel like a woman like her, with her ambitions and drive to fulfill her destiny, would allow her judgement to be so clouded by a man like him, who has literally nothing going for him except the fact that he’s pretty. But I suppose love is unpredictable.
Overall, I absolutely loved this book. I had expected it to be a standalone, and does work well as a standalone, but it is the first in a trilogy. I absolutely cannot wait to see what Dao comes up with next — she is an amazing and refreshing new talent in the genre.
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