Status: Finished Reading (23 June 2018)
Edition: International Edition Paperback
Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a re-imagination of The Evil Queen story in an East-Asian setting. It follows the story of Xifeng, a peasant-girl from a small town who has repeatedly been told that her destiny lies in a greater world: a world full of power, luxury and control. The novel takes us through the trials Xifeng faces, the hard decisions she must make, and the enemies against her as she makes her way to the throne she believes she deserves.
Rightfully named the Rise of the Empress series, the book is equal parts politics and ambitious magic. The book doesn’t feature the usual epic fantasy tropes that follow a prophecy – an item, a quest, a battle. That is not to say that there are no quests and battles – rather, they are not in a battle ground. Instead, what we read about is a headstrong girl playing a game in the politics of court, women, and rumours. Certainly, there is a quest and a journey, and even some companions picked up along the way, but the feel of the story-telling is more historical than epic fantasy. That doesn’t make it any less appealing though: if anything it adds to the lushness of the setting and creates an almost realistic feel to what is otherwise a very magical story.
Xifeng is one of the most interesting main characters I have read about in a long time – I don’t know if I can even call her a protagonist because she embodies so many traits that traditional heroes don’t, but at the same time she also embodies some. Perhaps an anti-hero would be a good term for her. It amazes me how much I related to her character (maybe my inner Slytherin really related to self-preservation). She has so many moments of giving into her weaknesses, of acting on her desires, of unapologetically doing things she knows are morally grey. Characters like her are so few in the mainstream/popular young-adult reading category – perhaps as fun side characters, but fewer POV ones. It was refreshing to read about an ambitious young woman who will do anything it takes to get what she wants, including cutting down anything that stands in her way.
One of the main reasons this worked for me was because even though Xifeng is fairly cunning and calculated, she is by no means cold. If anything, her emotions burn quite vividly and that makes for a very appealing storyteller. She often lets her emotions get in the way, which means we see her acting quickly and instinctually. We also see her getting attached to a fair few characters and see them through her eyes. We see her struggle to make hard decisions about them. Two of the characters this resonated with me so deeply about were, obviously, Wei and Lihua.
I loved how Wei and Xifeng’s story was never overdone – there is not enough content provided to “ship” them or care for them, because this isn’t about her romance at all. The story is Xifeng-centric. Moreover, the fact that she’s so confused about what she feels for Wei was something I really loved – it’s feelings of a young girl warring with the ambitions of a young woman, it’s wanting to cling to familiarity and something you consider selfishly “yours” but knowing you need to let go. I really appreciated that being shown.
With Lihua, we see a different kind of connection – the kind that inevitably happens when you’re using someone for power. The love and closeness you end up feeling for them fights against the knowledge that they are, ultimately, your rival.
Dao takes us on such a rich journey of Xifeng’s life and rise to being Empress, and all of it set in such a lush universe. The way the magic worked was downright horrifying, which is the effect I presume the author was going for – and it worked. A lot of the magical threads in the story are very subtly woven in, so that when they become more prominent and further removed from reality, it is a very gradual move and feels entirely organic. None of the major reveals jarred me because they seemed outlandish – but they did jar me because Dao built suspense very well and the plot twists hit me hard.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this series for people who love a good fantasy. It is a diverse story told by a POC author, and there is great care towards the world building and retelling that is hard to find in a lot of popular fantasy. Morally grey characters are severely under-appreciated – especially those that are unapologetically so, and Xifeng was a breath of fresh air. As I understand, the next book in the duology tells the story of a different character, so I will sorely miss Xifeng’s POV – but I cannot wait to see what game Dao lays out in the next book of this thrilling saga.