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.
A RICH FANTASY WORLD
“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.
A CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY, WITH ITS DARK AND TWISTED WAYS
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.
A SLOW-BUILDING DESTINY
“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!