Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a captivating reimagining of the Evil Queen fairy tale set in a richly detailed East Asian-inspired fantasy world.
About ‘Forest of a Thousand Lanterns’ by Julie C. Dao
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.
Set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world filled with both breathtaking pain and beauty, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns possesses all the hallmarks of masterful fantasy: dazzling magic, heartbreaking romance, and a world that hangs in the balance.
‘Forest of a Thousand Lanterns’ by Julie C. Dao review
Long presented as just the one-note, cruel antagonist in many a princess story, evil queens have recently risen in popularity to become the focus of their own point-of-view narratives.
Movies like Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman, along with YA novels like Marissa Meyer’s Fairest, subvert fairy tale tropes by instead placing the more antagonistic evil queen character at the center of the storytelling.
Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns follows this same format, but incorporates two major shifts — one in her world building, the other in her storytelling — that serve to make this fantastic fairy tale re-telling as unique as it is engaging.
First, rather than setting her story in an obviously Western-inspired world populated with White characters, Dao instead chooses to place her characters in the fantastical East Asian-inspired continent of Feng Lu.
We follow the exploits of beautiful Xifeng as she works her way up the social ladder of the royal palace — despite the machinations of the scheming head concubine Lady Sun.
We get to know Wei, the boy from back home who’s loved Xigeng for as long as he’s known her; Shiro, the kindly dwarf and Ambassador from the neighboring kingdom of Kamatsu; and Kang, the palace eunuch who quickly becomes Xifeng’s most trusted and closest friend.
These names — Xifeng, Shiro, Kang — are all of Chinese or Japanese origin, which is rare to see in a YA novel and especially rare to see in a YA fantasy novel.
Likewise, rather than fairies and sprites, which all come from European folk tales, Dao’s story is instead replete with mystical demon guardians and serpent gods who walk the earth.
As a fan of both fairy tale retellings and diverse authors and characters, this setting was an absolute dream to me. It’s obvious just how much time and work Dao put into creating the world of Feng Lu — everything from the history, to the legends, to the geography is lush and intricate, seamlessly woven into the narrative in such a way that the world feels natural and lived-in.
Secondly, rather than telling the story of an evil queen at the height of her power, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns instead chronicles Xifeng’s long climb to power, highlighting her as a young woman who is as clever as she is ruthless, as driven as she is beautiful.
Coming from extremely humble beginnings as a poor yet beautiful peasant girl under the harsh thumb of her aunt, a powerful witch named Guma, we follow along as Xifeng make increasingly merciless decisions as she works to fulfill the destiny that her aunt has drilled into her head — and that she comes to believe she truly deserves.
It’s a story that has us rooting for someone we know is the ‘bad guy’ — or at least will eventually become one — but Xifeng is such a fascinating, complex character, and Dao writes her so fully and beautifully, that it’s hard not to want to see her succeed.
In fact, it speaks to Julie C. Dao’s talent as a writer that even when I was frustrated with Xifeng’s vanity, or horrified by the lengths she went to maneuver her way into power, I was still utterly engaged with her and never bored with the story.
She’s a similar mix of ruthlessly driven, vulnerable and complicated as Cersei from Game of Thrones or Amy Dunne from Gone Girl — utterly captivating characters who you don’t exactly identify with (or at least, don’t want to identify with) but can’t help but admire for their ambition, cunning and ability to exact the perfect revenge.
The novel is the first in a series, and does a great job at both closing out its own story and setting up the familiar Snow White-esque pieces — a friendly dwarf, a banished princess — for what I’m sure will be a fantastic sequel.