Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, Julie C. Dao

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was not what I expected it to be, AT ALL.
IF I had to sum it up in a couple words, actually, I would not know where to start. Unique. Dark. Twisted as hell. Maybe these three – okay I am cheating here – would be good to start with.


 “The procession stretched down the cobblestone road, a serpent made of men in red and gold, the Emperor’s colors.”


Forest of a Thousand Lanterns takes us right in the middle of an East-Asian world, filled with colors, magical elements and a setting you will not quite forget. From the very first pages, Julie C. Dao manages to grab us with her words, take us right into the heart of the story, in a world of her own imagination that was painted with such details that it seemed oh, so real. The world-building is definitely one of the strongest suits of the book: a Chinese-inspired setting, vivid, colorful, very detailed, constructed with both mythological and magical elements woven together beautifully. Despite this, for me, being a really character-driven book, the setting of the story is almost magical and takes us away for sure – exactly what I was looking for in this kind of book.


I will admit, however, that I was a bit confused by the world at times, its complexities, the different empires, their relationships and so on. Besides that, everything in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was made to take you away in that Empire far away from everything, following the future Empress trying to make her destiny come true… as soon as possible.




As I said it before, for me, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is really character-driven. Xifeng, the main character, is the one making the story happen as she tries and climb every step up to her destiny: becoming Empress. In this, we can recognize the Evil Queen retelling that this book promises and, during the whole story, we get to see how brilliant this retelling is as we realize to which extend a person will get to make things happen. I am not too familiar with the Evil Queen story, so I will not try and draw comparisons here – I don’t think that is the point anyway. Instead, I’m going to talk about Xifeng.

“She was a monster, a bride of the darkness, and she rose to face her destiny as though it were the blood red sunrise of a new day.”

The main character in this story was both brilliant and, well, I’ll say it, annoying. In case you did not know this, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an anti-hero story, so… bad things happen and the main character definitely does tons of questionable things I’m not going to reveal here. From the girl abused by her aunt, to the girl trying to take her destiny into her own hands, there is stunning character growth in this story – in a strange, twisted way. It is hard to understand Xifeng and everything she does and, for me, it was hard to actually feel something for her. Yet, in a strange way, I was also drawn to everything she did, expected something to turn around, expected something good to happen as it all went from bad to worse. Warning: this is not a happy story. In fact, everything dark in Xifeng just grows and grows, until it reaches impressive proportions, until we get to see darkness spreading everywhere in the pages of this book.

“Xifeng tilted her face, a pale moon in the evening of the water. She felt like a goddess in the shimmering light. She was a poem come to life, each vein was a lyric.”

I really loved the character’s unexpectedly dark evolution, yet I kept expecting something good, better, to happen. This is the marshmallow in me, guys, sorry. I also felt a bit confused by everything the character was doing, saying, how ruthless she grew, but most of it all – how her aunt, the one she tried to hard to get away from, still influenced her every thought once she did leave. I was just confused by this a tiny bit.

Secondary characters in the story were quite interesting to follow as well – even if, at times, I quite missed a bit of chemistry here and there. I absolutely loved the whole storyline behind Wei and Xifeng’s relationship, based on sacrifice. Yet, I wish I could have felt a bit more for them to fall in love completely with their relationship, ship them and cry with them overall. Otherwise, I really liked how each relationship was built within the Empress’ lair, how Xifeng slowly built relationships for her to get to the top, how conflicted her feelings were about said relationships… Building them, growing attached, breaking them to go all the way to the top. Following this was one of the most interesting part of this book for sure.


“She would bloom where she was planted and let her roots close around the throats of her enemies.”


Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is almost 400 pages-long, yet it’s a book that takes its time – building the world, forging the relationships, taking every page it needs to slowly draw us into the story, makes us realize what is at stake and everything else. Once it does, however, and from the moment Xifeng really takes action, well… sh*t happens, that’s for sure. WAAAY darker than I expected it to be, I’ll be honest.


Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was a strong and really surprising debut. Wit an amazing world-building, an interesting and very twisted anti-heroine story, it was captivating and a bit unsettling as well…. A book to fall in love with for its dark and twisted ways, for lovers of anti-heroine stories, fantasy Chinese-inspired world building filled with magic and mythology. Despite my tiny issues here and there, that was a very good debut for sure and, if I was a tiny bit confused by it all at some times, I am still so very curious to see what happens next in Xifeng’s twisted story in the sequel.

Final rating:  4 drops!

A million thanks to Penguin Random House & Philomel Books for the ARC of this book. This did not, in any way, affect my opinion on this. All quotes are taken from the ARC.

Trigger Warnings: domestic abuse, scenes of graphic physical violence.

Julie C. Dao, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns,  Published by Philomel Books, October 10th, 2017.


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.

Do you want to read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns? Why, or why not?

Do you enjoy retellings? Which one’s your favorite?! Did you ever read an Evil Queen retelling? Let me know in comments!

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Book blogger, travel blogger, writer. 📚 |🌍 | 💞 Writing & Communications Graduate. French. Living on love, wanderlust and ya books.

57 thoughts on “Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, Julie C. Dao

  1. I’ve been waiting for this one for ages now, but I still have to waitwaitwait. Your review has me even more impatient though, haha! The cover is just amazing and the blurb is one that immediately grabbed my attention as well. Also, fantasy that’s character-driven? I tend to love those!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m so, so glad you liked my review, Kathy, thank you! ❤ I really found that it was character-driven and I loved seeing the character change, grow as she tried to make this destiny of hers come true. I hope you'll love it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Marie! Love this review! I’ve heard about this book around the blogosphere recently, and I am glad to read a review about it! I am interested in this novel because I am from China and I grew up watching these type of tv shows haha. This sounds similar to a real life story that people tell about an Empress who is a great ruler but has done terrible things. I can imagine how dark and twisted this story can be! Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sophie! Thank you so much ❤ I have to say, I did not include too much "backstory" and mythology in my review, since I'm not too familiar with that, I did not want to make any mistakes there, but I think it was hugely inspired by this story you're talking about? 🙂 Anyway, I really hope you'll read and enjoy it 🙂 Thank you so much, have an amazing weekend as well! xx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so looking forward to reading this book! I really liked dark stories and a morally grey main character sounds really interesting! I’m definitely picking this one up one day! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m curious to see how dark the book gets; I can handle a few things but not others. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I liked the quotes you gave 🙂 Best retellings for me are Hunted by Meagan Spooner, Phantom by Susan Kay and The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohh well if you liked these quotes, I think you might really enjoy the whole book — this writing style is so, so beautiful 🙂
      I am SO glad that you’re talking about The Forbidden Wish, it is one of my favorite books! ❤ ❤ I so want to read Hunted, glad you enjoyed it 🙂
      Thank you so much for your sweet comment ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem 🙂 Yes I love them both. I normally don’t like a ton retellings; I tend to like more of the underrated ones. I did get to read a couple chapters of Lanterns and I do love her writing style. Luckily only a few more days until it comes out

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds really interesting! As soon as anyone talks about a character as unlikeable I’m immediately in. I don’t know what that says about me.

    Your currently reading says you’re reading Just Listen! Omg I hope you love it. It’s my favourite Sarah Dessen, and one of my favourite books in general. I read it when I was seventeen or so and was a biiiiig deal for me at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that says that you really, really want to understand ALL people and characters, even if you hate them? I’m interpreting it this way, ahah, I think it’s good 😉
      YEEES I AM! I just started reading it yesterday and so far, I really am enjoying it 😀


  6. I’m so happy to see that you liked it! I’m so ready for the Evil Queen! Hopefully I’ll get around to reading it soon and see what all the hype is about. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I had the skim the majority of this review Marie, mainly because I haven;t read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns myself and I was to go into it with no expectations. Still from what I did see it seems like you really enjoyed this book, and you’ve definitely made me more excited for it as well. 🙂
    Unique, dark, and twisted sounds like my kind of book, actually everything I read of this review makes this seem like my kind of book. 😀
    Once I’ve read this book I’ll definitely come back and read your review properly, so I can see what you thought of this one in more detail. Either way I can’t wait to get my hands on it. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I understand – it’s sometimes way better to go in with no expectations at all, in order to be surprised. I hope this book will be a great surprise for you and that you’ll end up loving it, Beth! I have a feeling you will 🙂
      Thank you so much ❤ ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand – there are SO many reviews sometimes, so many people gushing about it all, it’s hard NOT to have expectations. It’s good to get in blind, better for us ahah 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I have been wanting to read this book as it sounds really good and I LOVE books that take time, as it generally ends up being really rewarding! However, I’m not a fan of dark books so I’m not sure if I’ll read this, especially if it’s super dark. If my library gets it in I might give it a go…but I’m not sure! XD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohh, I understand. I think what made me feel a bit, weird overall and surprised about the book, was the extent to which the main character was going in order to get to her destiny. No character stands in her way, there are a couple of…well, bloody scenes, I will say it this way. Otherwise, it is really interesting to see the character’s growth, her evolution, and the world and writing style really is beautiful 🙂 I hope you’ll want to give it a try, maybe read a couple pages if your library has it before taking it, see if you’re into it? 🙂
      Thank you so much, Kyra! ❤


  9. Oooh, I’ve seen this one around and I’m definitely interested! The wonderful thing about dark main characters is getting to explore and understand their motivations (that’s always my favorite part in writing or reading), and they often have such complex reasons for everything that they do. I’m with you though on always hoping for something good even when you know how it has to end (me with Heartless by Marissa Meyer). :p

    Great review! I might give this one a read.


    Liked by 1 person

  10. This definitely sounds like my kind of book! Loads and loads of darkness? Check. Powerful character development? Check. Incredible world building? Check. Thanks for the awesome review! I can’t wait to get my hands on this.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yes I have read this and I agree with everything you said! I did really like the overall plot and Xifeng as a character, but I do question the reasoning behind her motives. But I’m glad you enjoyed this otherwise 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohh thank you so much, Valerie! I’m so glad you felt the same way. I think I wanted to know a bit more, to feel a bit more for her, in order to love the book. There, when I failed to understand her, I failed at getting attached a little bit.
      Thank you for your sweet comment ❤


  12. Oh, I can’t help it…I actually love the Evil Queen! So, of course, that is what has initially drawn me to this book but let’s face it, I would buy it based on the cover alone! That is what has me really sold. I know, I know…judging books by their covers blah blah. But this one is so gorgeous! And from the sounds of your review, the book (and it’s beautiful cover) live up to the hype so it’s well-founded 🙂

    Great review 🙂 I am a new follower and absolutely love your blog. Will definitely be back for more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahah oh you’re not the only one judging books by their covers, don’t worry – I was drawn by that one’s cover for sure as well, it is SO stunning! ❤
      I can't wait for you to read this book. If you love the Evil Queen, I have a feeling you'll enjoy this one 🙂
      Thank you so, so much for your sweet comment, you just made my day. Thank you ❤ ❤ ❤


  13. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is at the top of my most anticipated reads list and I cannot wait to get my hands on it! It sounds like something I would personally enjoy because I love retellings and this one sounds so unique and different from anything I’ve read before! Great review and thank you for sharing! Hope you have a wonderful week!

    Elena @ Book Lady’s Reviews

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohh, well it really was unlike anything I’ve read before, that’s for sure! I hope you’ll enjoy it when you can read it, Elena! 🙂
      Thank you so much for your sweet comment, I hope you’ll have an amazing week as well! ❤


    1. Oh I’m glad I’m not the only one – I didn’t expect it to be this dark, ahah. It still was a good read though, a bit unsettling at times 😛
      Thank you so much for your sweet comment ❤ ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I love your review, Marie 🌸
    I’ve been interested in reading this purely because of the world building; I’ve read loads of reviews that loved the Chinese inspired world building and it really sounds so lush and magical! I’m also a total marshmallow, but I think it would be interesting to explore a darker more unruly character. Definitely still interested in reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you so, so much, Michelle ❤
      The world-building WAS magical for sure – so unique, and the beautiful writing style made it all the more fabulous to read.
      I hope you'll read it sometime, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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