Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Published: October 10th, 2017
Genre: Ya Fantasy Retelling
An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny. 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.
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“You have two faces. Two beings live within you, struggling for control. One has a heart that thrives in darkness and feeds on the pain of weaker souls. The other longs to stretch a hand to the light, to live and love as others do.”
“I have my own soul and my own destiny, and I’m tired of belonging to someone else.”
Xifeng lives in a small town with her abusive aunt named Guma. Guma is somewhat of a witch and constantly reads Xifeng’s cards. She wants Xifeng to fulfill her destiny that the cards have in store for her to become Empress of Feng Lu. Xifeng outwardly doesn’t trust the cards but she secretly longs to fulfill the destiny the cards have predicted for her. But no rise to power and glory comes easy especially when a dark spirit is involved. There are many sacrifices that she must make and many obstacles to rid of on her rise to becoming Empress. When she gathers the courage to fight back against her Guma and set forth on her destiny she runs away with her beloved, Wei, who knows nothing of her dreams and aspirations. As they travel they make some companions and finally find themselves in the ruthless court. Xiefeng learns many truths about court life in her struggle to getting close to Emperor Jun. To achieve what the cards have promised she will also learn about the dark truth that her future holds and must truly open herself to it if she wants to go forth with the path set before her. She will experience love, loss, and the dangers of the court but nothing will prepare the people for the true power of Xifeng. This is an evil queen retelling. I LOVE the authors reimagining. We hardly get the villains side to a story and this was so unapologetically evil and sinister my villain loving heart was soaring. I have not read any evil queen retellings and I’m so pleased with how Dao wrote this story. Xifengs rise to power started out reluctant but she ultimately chose her path and didn’t look back. The transition in her psyche and personality was so smooth and showed the exceptional ability Julie C. Dao has as an author. I was so pleased that the author included a pronunciation key. I never want to appear ignorant so I appreciate when an author realizes not everyone will know how to pronounce certain things and they include it so we can say it correctly. This book held an excellent pace and I was never bored. She had a wonderful balance of descriptive pages and dialogue. The plot twists were intriguing and twisted (no pun intended.)
“Court is a dangerous place,” Hideki said grimly. “It’s made up of power and those poisoned by it. It’s like a sand pit in the desert: you can’t see one until it traps you, and then it’s too late. You struggle to regain your footing, but you won’t go far before sliding to the bottom.”
You may hate Xifeng but that is literally the point. She is not a good person. She has good moments and moments when you feel extremely bad for her but overall she is darkness. She is vain but again people THAT IS THE POINT. This is a reimagining of the evil queen who takes the souls or hearts of beautiful women to stay beautiful and the FAIREST OF THEM ALL. Her start is rough and I love her take no prisoners attitude. She is not a woman to be played with or owned. She has a destiny but she carves her path to the top. She is so unapologetically evil as the story progresses it is exceptional. The side characters have such depth and are multi-dimensional. The antagonists in Xifeng’s life were done in a perfect way. You felt what they felt and why they felt it. This felt like a critique of a patriarchal world where the men can live as they please but the women are terrified of losing what they feel is their greatest weapon (beauty). Everyone is so interesting and some of what we see is not what it seems. This is court life people deception, betrayal, lies, death, loss, seduction, etc. are infused in all of our characters.
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.
This was such a vivid and lush world. Dao created such a visually stunning atmosphere. Every new place she described was ornate and splendid. Even her explanations of the tunnels, dark forests, and gruesome sounding places were intense and glaring. The world was something out of a beautiful East Asian movie. I was visually stimulated and that is something I look for in any fantasy novel. The world-building is clearly a nod to the author’s impeccable skills as a writer. The mind she created for Xifeng was nasty and disturbed at times and sad and innocent at others. This developed the story in a truly exceptional way because you felt the back and forth battle of our wonderfully evil protagonist. The setting was in East Asia. Everything was magical and descriptive. I was transported into this book through her words.
“I’d cross the sky and bring you the moon, if you wanted me to. I would be a free being if not for you.”
For those who are more interested in her evil highnesses rise to power and a wicked plot than this romance will be great for you. It is important but it doesn’t take precedent. I don’t want to spoil it all by explaining it all but just know it won’t be overbearing. The romantic plot is completely necessary to her character ARC, to be honest. Wei adores her and just wants to do all he can for her. But as we all know about the evil queen love and evilness don’t mix. She loved him but she never gave him heart even from the beginning. Her fate and destiny mean more but she does care for him and make no mistake he is important to her destiny. They were interesting and you feel bad for their unfortunate doom but she can’t be a ruler with any ties to the past.
She will never again look at what belongs to us…She will never again want what is ours.
“My life and my destiny are my own.”
“My home and my life are with you, wherever you are.”
“I’m sick to death of lords and kings and emperors. What do they do but play games and let their people pay the price in blood? We have no quarrel with each other. Only kings are arrogant enough to believe the world too small to hold other men.”
“Beauty is not worth your soul.”
“I don’t want your hopes and dreams,” he said in a voice like a fresh-hewn blade. “I want you to give all of yourself to me. To be as much under my spell as I am under yours.”
“Careful not to cut yourself when you play with a sword,” she hissed. Her reflection bared its fangs in a smile of grotesque promise.
“I am the moon and the darkness around it,” Xifeng hissed in that ancient, ageless voice. “I am the wind and the rain and the ceaseless sea. I am time itself, and yours is running out.” Her chest felt like it would explode from the sheer immensity of her power.
“My shadowed goddess. My dark queen. My fairest, he said. Guma was only a means to an end. You are my prize…The moon shines down upon us, beloved…
“There is nothing I won’t do for you, the Serpent God told her. There is no door now that will remain closed to you. The world is yours.
She might never truly love this man and he might never truly love her, but they needed each other, two ruthless souls driven by fate.
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