Forest of a Thousand Lanterns: Review
Friends! Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao has been on my radar for over a year now because it combines some of my favorite things: an East Asian-inspired mythology and world, and fairy tales. Plus, it's written by an Asian American authors and I am a strong advocate for supporting APIA voices in literature, especially fantasy. I was elated when I found out that the book would be in the October 2017 FairyLoot box, accompanied by plenty of other bookish goodies and soon enough, it ended up on my TBR (to be read) shelf. And this week, I finally read it! Read on for my full review.
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.
Julie Dao has created a delightful world inspired by various East Asian cultures. There is Feng Lu, inspired by China and Kamatsu, presumably inspired by Japan based on the nation's name and the names of those who call Kamatsu home ("Hideki" and "Shiro", for example). As someone who takes literary inspiration from East Asian cultures, myths, and legends, I was curious to see how Dao would pull this off without explicitly referencing real-world parallels. I felt that she pulled it off well! It was clear where she drew her inspiration from, but it was still a world that she was able to make her own and this was done particularly through the new myths and gods that Dao introduced us to in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.
However, I came to realize something about myself as I read this book. I realized that I don't actually like reading about anti-heroines. I felt the same way about Xifeng that I did about Adelina in Marie Lu's The Young Elites series. I felt that Xifeng was bland- and forgive me for not caring about her looks as much as she does. She came off as arrogant and haughty and while this is essentially an "Evil Queen" retelling, I wanted to like Xifeng. Or at the very least, empathize with her. Unfortunately, I did not.
The first half of the book moves incredibly slowly as Xifeng plots her way towards the majestic future that she is promised, moving her friends around like pawns. She battles an inner voice and in these moments, we are shown her vulnerability. But her character development is lacking and those moments of vulnerability mean nothing to me when I never got a chance to embrace Xifeng as a character untainted by this dark ambition- who she could have been.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a promising start to a unique world that I haven't encountered before in Young Adult Fantasy and I am looking forward to supporting Dao as she continues with this series. However, it also fell short of my enormous expectations. For readers who expect a fast-paced fantasy or a fairy tale retelling more akin to the legend of the Evil Queen that they're used to, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is not that. Instead, it reads like a folk tale in itself, slow-moving and languorous. This may appeal to some readers, but not necessarily all YA Fantasy readers.
I rate Forest of a Thousand Lanterns 3/5 stars.