Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress Book 1)
Author: Julie C. Dao
Publisher: Philomel Books
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Retelling
Release Date: 10th October 2017
Wow! Forest of a Thousand Lanterns truly swept me up into an intriguing East Asian wonderland of politics, romance, betrayal and bloodshed. An exhilarating ride of the tussle between being true to yourself and following your destiny whether for good or for evil, ‘For that is the way of the world, Guma’s voice echoed. Some are given a rope to the moon, and others claw up the sky.’
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the debut novel from Julie C. Dao which follows the story of beautiful village peasant Xifeng (pronounced SHE-fung) on her journey through the empire of Feng Lu. Her majestic quest consists of fulfilling her regal destiny to become the Empress of Feng Lu, bestowed upon her by a set of mysterious card readings performed by her cruel aunt Guma; there’s just one problem – the current Empress of Feng Lu is not only still alive, but she is also the descendent of an ancient line of Dragon Lords who have ruled over the empire for many years. To add to this, the Emperor has numerous concubines including the formidable Lady Sun who has already provided the Emperor with a male heir. As Xifeng traverses from village peasant to member of Empress Lihua’s Court, she must wrestle not only with her life’s prophecy as told by Guma’s cards, but the very own desires of her heart, asking herself of the lengths she will go to and the sacrifices she will make in order to achieve her destiny.
From the Great Forest with its Tengaru inhabitants and hidden glades, to the Imperial Palace with its opulent elegance, to the hidden caves and tunnels buried beneath the Palace’s compound, Dao’s fantasy empire is magically brought to life through her exquisite world building and description. The presence of mythology and destiny is intricately woven throughout the narrative and heightens the aspects of magic within the story. The characters within the novel are equally well developed. A helpful glossary at the beginning of the book gives helpful pronunciation tips and provides a useful reference to all of the roles within the story.
‘“I am the moon and the darkness around it,” Xiifeng hissed in that ancient, ageless voice. “I am the Wind and rain and the ceaseless sea. I am time itself, and yours is running out.”’
Xifeng is a strong female character who has almost two separate halves; the ambitious yet familial village girl compared to the ruthless evil spirit which lingers deep down in her soul. Whether Xifeng is an anti-hero or an anti-villain depends entirely upon the reader’s depiction of her as a character. Her thought processes and actions are well-mapped by Dao and I found myself both supporting her and then vilifying her within a matter of paragraphs! Likewise, her relationship with Wey equally has you championing their union and then backing her whenever she decides that she needs to go it alone. At the Imperial Palace, the initial relationship between Xifeng and Empress Lihua appears at odds to the relationship between Xifeng and the formidable Lady Sun. Dao strikes the balance between Xifeng’s need to make alliances simply because she wants to make friends, as well as those unions which will enable her to further her own quest to make herself the Empress.
‘“I believe our lives have already been decided, and it is our purpose to make the choices that lead us to that fate.”’ Fate and the idea of Good vs Evil are two of the main themes which are prevalent through the contrasting elements and relationships within this story. Each aspect or event has its own flipside which keeps you on your toes and turning page after page to uncover the truths of the narrative. The tenderness and nobility of the Tengaru and their Forest deeply contrasts with Guma’s prophecies, the evil spirits and the disconcerting voices within Xifeng’s head. Dao also spins a web of political plots and subplots which leave you questioning who the real villains are and whether they are hiding in plain sight or disguised from view.
‘There are no coincidences, Guma always said. Everything that happens is meant to.’ And this book was definitely meant to fall into my lap. This Evil Queen retelling certainly keeps you on your toes and for me Dao has written a superb Yin and Yang type of book. For every good thing which happens, there’s almost always something else which happens to tip the scale and flip it onto its head, and it’s usually to do with Xifeng and the decisions she makes within the story. Just like in the story, I devoured the heart and lifeblood of this superb novel! A fabulous protagonist, beautiful East Asian setting, magic, evil, destiny all lyrically spun into a rich narrative; I cannot wait for Rise of the Empress #2!