Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao is an East Asian fantasy re-imagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress – and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny. I received my copy of the book in the October FairyLoot, which featured all things “Villainous” – otherwise, I really don’t think I would have picked this one up for myself. I haven’t been a huge fan of fairy tale retellings of late, and this seemed like another YA Fantasy Retelling ripe for disappointment.
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.
As I mentioned above, I haven’t been loving the YA Fantasy Retelling genre of late – a lot of the retold stories I’ve been reading have felt childish, contrived, or otherwise false. And while Forest of a Thousand Lanterns certainly wasn’t the worst among this category, it still failed to shine for a few key reasons.
I actually put the book down halfway through, and didn’t pick it up for nearly two weeks – that’s a long book break for me, bordering on being completely abandoned as DNF. Not because the writing was bad – but because the plot itself was about as interesting as watching paint dry. Why, you may ask? Primarily because the plot was dull, a bit all over the place, and lacked any sense real growing action/climax/resolution. Honestly, my biggest problem with Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is that not much happened (in writing at least – certainly lots of events and changes were implied) – despite the fact that three years passed between covers. There was a lot of “fast-forwarding” and the story felt, at best, to be very surface level. Furthermore, this plot structure lent itself to making the book feel like an exceptionally long prologue to another story. Nothing much really happened in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns – yes, there were several moderately exciting segments, with clandestine politics and even a dash of romance – but there was no one instance I would identify as a major climax. At the end of the book, I felt like I was still waiting for the ball to drop – nothing unexpected or remotely climax-like had really happened.
Despite my general disinterest with the plot, I did enjoy the way Dao crafted her anti-heroine – from the beginning I was intrigued by Xifeng’s dual characteristics, both sweet and kind, yet poisonous and manipulative. This inner turmoil was well done – not too angsty or dark, with just the right amount of personal conflict and confusion. In fact, it was perhaps the intrigue of Xifeng’s character that kept me reading – and prompted me to pick the book up again after such a long break. It certain wasn’t the story, after all. Xifeng is interesting for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason, for me, was the fact that she is not meant to be the hero – instead, you are reading a story about the rise of a villain.
And while I liked Xifeng, I did have some major issues with the portrayal of women in this book. Yes, there are lots of women – lots of supposedly empowered, independent women with goals and motivations entirely their own. Or so they say. So why did it feel like these women were so subservient to the men, who treated them as little more than possessions? This portrayal reminded of my concerns after reading The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco – instead of creating an empowering role for women, Dao, like Chupeco, launched the women (who are exclusively viewed as wives, daughters, sisters, or concubines in the harem) into a wholly subservient role, wherein their beauty, charms and manners are almost, if not more, important than their abilities. It’s ridiculous, and I am altogether tired of seeing this portrayal of women (finding power withing the confines of a man’s society by using their natural beauty, charms and manners) touted about as “empowering”. Seriously – there is such a emphasis on beauty! Pretty much every single time Xifeng is mentioned, something is said about her lotus lips or perfect skin or glowing eyes. It’s ridiculous, disheartening, and to be quite frank, slightly infuriating. Women, fictional or not, are more than their beauty, charms and manners.
Overall, this book just didn’t do it for me. Between the completely dull, uninspired, and honestly lacking plot, and the rampant sexism, I just could not get into it or really enjoy it at all. The only redeeming factor was (maybe) the intrigue of Xifeng’s character, but that was, at best, a drop of water compared to the tide that was my dislikes about this book (2/5).