Forest of a Thousand Lanterns tells the story of Xifeng, a young and beautiful peasant girl destined to become empress, but it would come at a great cost. Written by Julie Dao, the world of Feng Lu is a rich narrative filled with complex characters, deep conflicts, and magical mythology.
Xifeng comes from a very humble village where she lived with her aunt Guma. Since she was a young child, Guma had groomed her to become a lady worthy of the royal court, but had also abused her mercilessly both physically and mentally. As a result, Xifeng grew to both crave and despise the prophetic predictions of her aunt’s cards that she would one day be empress of all Feng Lu. It seemed so out of reach for a poor country girl like herself. Finally deciding to seek her fortune on her own terms, she leaves home with Wei, the boy who had loved her since they were children. She eventually makes her way to the imperial court and there her life changes forever.
Her journey from a young girl to a powerful woman was such a pleasure to read because of the many struggles she endured along the way and the steps she took to overcome them. Xifeng learns that her beauty is a weapon to wield and that every choice came with a price. She battles her dual natures and eventually carves out a path that is hers alone. In many ways her story is one of independence from the expectations of others in a society where one’s sex and class dictated their future. In Xifeng, the author manages to create a well-rounded anti-hero full of many contrasts that make her all the more relatable.
Dao’s world is lush and complex as men and women of varying social standing interact with each other on different levels across familial strife, court intrigues, and political maneuvers. In addition, gods and beings from mythology and folklore make their presence known as forceful entities playing their own complicated game.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has been hailed as an East Asian retelling of Snow White through the eyes of the Evil Queen. With that said I didn’t read anything about the novel while devouring the text and so I was incredibly shocked and pleased with the twist because Xifeng’s evolution was so gradual that I couldn’t help but root for her the entire time. This tale shows us as well that people aren’t all good or evil. Everyone is capable of great benevolent acts and horrific undertakings motivated by love, hate, fear, greed, lust, and other human emotions. All the major characters had their own competing agendas, but still familiar cultural themes dominated their lives. Themes like family honor and respect for one’s elders really resonated with me as these were a part of my own upbringing.
This tale is a beautiful, provoking, and at times gruesome voyage that will tug on the heartstrings in the best way possible. Go read this now!
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is Julie Dao’s debut novel and the first in her Rise of the Empress series. The next book will be titled Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix and is expected to come out October 2018.