17 November, 2020

[Review] Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Cover image from the goodreads website.

Series or Stand Alone: Rise of the Empress Duology #1
Release Date: 11 September, 2018
Publisher: Speak (An imprint of Penguin Random House)
Genre: Folklore/Fantasy/Asian Fantasy/Legends/Fairy Tale Retellings
ISBN: 9781524738310
Edition: Paperback (available in hardback, eBook, and audiobook)
Rating: ★★
Review Written: 6 August, 2020
Warnings: Death, Mild Sexual Scenes, Violence
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. Fans of Heartless, Stealing Snow, and Red Queen will devour this stunning debut.

See more by Julie C. Dao at her website.
I picked up this book with our Summer theme of Fairy-tales in mind. Honestly, I'd wanted to read this book since it came out, but other things kept popping up on my to-read list. After I finally purchased this title for work, I read it during the slow periods as we slowly reopened. Yes, we are open in a pandemic, with limited numbers.

This duology provides a fresh take on the Snow White story, infusing it with the rich mythological cultures of Asia and providing a new look at the evil stepmother mythos. Readers are introduced to Xifeng, a young woman on the verge of her eighteenth birthday, who has been secluded away from most of the world by her aunt. Her aunt who would do anything for a bit of power and fame that their family once held. The only other constant in Xifeng's life is a blacksmith apprentice named Wei. Wei, who has loved her since they were 10, often insists that they should run away together, however the call of "destiny" is too strong.

Xifeng does eventually run away with Wei, after crippling her aunt enough to leave. The pair head for the Imperial City and meet the Katmansu ambassador and his party on the road. Xifeng, embarrassed by her face wound from her aunt, heads into the wood to find animal hearts to help heal her face. Though she eats the hearts, she fears that there is a darkness growing inside her that is fed by the hearts and her desire for more. Throughout her travels with Wei, Ambassador Shiro, and the soldiers accompanying Shiro, Xifeng will question whether or not her own desires come from her or from the dark entity alive inside her.

This novel shows the transformation of Xifeng from peasant girl to Empress, and shows her becoming the evil stepmother who casts aside her rival's child and works with a fallen god to take over the empire. We are left at the end of the novel with Xifeng ensuring that the Princess is sent to a monastery and her marriage to the Emperor to secure her place on the throne.

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