Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: October 10th 2017 by Philomel Books
Source: Publisher

“I want to mean something to a great deal of people. I’m tired of being no one. As Empress, I would have the right to choose for myself. Guma could not command me, and Wei would not own me.”

Xifeng has been brought up being told that her beauty is the most valuable thing about her. She has been taught that her beauty will open doors and easy the way for her from the poverty she lives in to the Emperor’s castle. Her aunt tells her that her ascension to Empress is written in the cards and her beauty is what makes it possible. As such, Xifeng prizes her beauty beyond anything else in the world.

Have you ever wondered how Snow White’s stepmother turned out the way she did? What led her to make the decisions she makes? What sort of circumstances conspire to turn a person into the soulless vain monster that she ends up becoming? Though one wonders what it means to be a monster? What, if anything, hides behind the facade of the monster?

Xifeng is not an easy protagonist to like. You know how this story goes and you know the choices she will end up making. But you still cannot get rid of the hope that maybe you are in some other novel, in some other (kinder if that’s even possible) fairytale.

Xifeng’s journey from her small village to the emperor’s palace is a rocky one. Xifeng has to make choices, difficult choices, and she does try to go against the destiny already written for her but…well. It’s not like I don’t understand where she is coming from. I think we will all empathize with her when she says:

“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.

Xifeng is like that friend we have, you know the one who always barrels into the wrong directions no matter how many road warnings there are to stop her.

Julie C. Dao’s writing is superb. She builds a world that is at once familiar and strange. Elements of the fairytale are apparent early on but the setting is richer, the cultural context deeper. The worldbuilding is extraordinary and I can see that she has built the foundation for the coming books in the series.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an extraordinary feat. It gives the origin of an antiheroine who is sure to chill in the coming novels. It gives her a heart and weaknesses and I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.

The shining blade has two faces
of a honed beauty to please the eye
But it is the edges of the sword felt most keenly
For what is the gleam of the sun on bright metal
Without the strength of its sting