The book in 3 words: Rise to Power. Descent.
Stars: ★★★★★ 5/5 – Loved it!
|Name of book||Forest of a Thousand Lanterns|
|Author||Julie C. Dao|
|Series||Rise of the Empress #1|
|Source||Fairyloot November 2017 box|
|Synopsis||“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.”
|In short||A Snow White fairy tale retelling from the POV of the Evil Queen.|
If this book is trying to get sorted into Slytherin, it’s doing a pretty good job.
|Characters||Anti-hero turned Villain Protagonist Xifeng i.e. ‘The Evil Queen’
Dogged Nice Guy Wei
Hidden Badass Empress Lihua
Emperor Jun, not as sweet and innocent as his original fairy tale counterpart
|Plot||Well-paced. Plot twist packs a punch – I wasn’t expecting that to go quite as it did. I also liked that there was a fast-forward at the end.|
|Worldbuilding||I very much enjoyed the new setting. The story takes place on the continent of Feng Lu, which consists of 5 nations. The Emperor lives and hails from the Kingdom of the Great Forest, 1 of these 5. The beginning of the world has a central myth of the 5 dragons for the 5 kingdoms, there are references to mythical creatures, magic. It feels well-rounded.
Given the Empire is based on usual Empires, they of course favour men. A girl can rule as regent only if her parents decide that she is fit to rule, which is decided when she is 20 or later. There are other instances of sexism that you can see in either day to day or in the rules of the Kingdoms.
|Notes||First page with character names was a nice touch, though at the time I had no idea who anyone was. I read through the book quite quickly so I didn’t need it. But I’m sure that if I staggered it over a longer period, that would’ve been very useful.
I’ve also just had another look at it and realised I’ve been reading Xifeng in my head wrong the whole time. So if you don’t know how to read Asian names, then have a look at how to pronounce them.
Before I start this review, I must say that this book is undoubtedly one of the most Slytherin books I’ve read. The Sorting hat wouldn’t even need a second to yell it out. If you like watching a Manipulative Bastard claw their way from the bottom to the top, all the while delivering crushing yet graceful remarks and vividly imagining how to kill her enemies, then boy will you love this. Starting 150 pages in, I have highlighted so many exchanges, the book is more yellow than white in places.
She encircled her wrist with one hand. She was surprisingly strong for a pampered, spoiled woman. “I know what you’re thinking. That because my wealthy father gave me to his Majesty, and because I’ve only ever lived in luxury, that life has been kind and easy”
“I wouldn’t presume to think of you at all, my lady.”
There are ways to do a fairy tale retelling badly: the characters lack depth and are bland; everyone seems to have no choice in what they will eventually end up doing; the plot has nothing to distract from the fact you’ve read this plot already etc. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns doesn’t do any of these – the book reads as an original story with occasional references that make you go:
I had moments where the plot twists surprised me. ‘Oh of course that’s what happens! It parallels Snow White!’ What I’m trying to say is that you forget this is a retelling. You feel like Xifeng has a choice – she could be good. She’ll find a way. She can come on top of what’s happened to her – and she does, in a way. But she still turns into the Villain Protagonist that I’ve already started rooting against. The shift has happened by the end of the book.
What I really love is how well this progression is done. Xifeng starts in a morally ambiguous grey area and slowly but surely, follows the slippery slope until the last push leaves her in the black. This final push consists of a very loaded scene towards the end of the book where she has a huge choice to make. And I can understand perfectly why Xifeng chose what she chose to do. All the factors – her personality, her desire for power, the loss of the people she held dear, feeling like the gods never answer her prayers but here is someone who has already helped her – it makes so much sense. BUT – and this is the good part – it doesn’t mean I condone what she did. I don’t think many writers can pull off this nice of a transition – kudos to Dao. I’m very curious if the next books are still from Xifeng’s POV and how her thinking develops.
I absolutely loved reading Xifeng’s thoughts – the revenge plots, imagining giving in to her anger and that making her laugh, how she mocked superiors without them always realising – it’s such a gem.
Xifeng smiled gently as she imagined choking her with that mud, spooning thick globs of it down her throat to block the air.
I could also give you plenty of beautifully written quotes but the revenge ones are my favourites.
Nature vs. Nurture
I’ve read quite a bit about toxic parents and the effect of upbringing and it’s more common than you’d think that the offspring continue the cycle – children grow to become toxic parents themselves unless they acknowledge it and choose to do something about it. Xifeng does not – she reaches the conclusion that her aunt was right all along. Yes, she’s happy she leaves because she doesn’t get beaten every other week and she has her independence, but other than that, she carries all the teachings her aunt brought her up with. She starts to think of her as a ‘real mother’ unlike these other soft-hearted women that teach their children about names of flowers and stories about love and lanterns. She has 100% internalised that the only thing she is and can be is beautiful and that without that, she loses everything. Xifeng states in the book somewhere that she knows her worth, and yet I’m pretty sure she equates it with how young and pretty her face is.
I also loved how Xifeng underestimated the Empress, and wrote her off as weak only for that to come back and bite her.
A daughter would be wasted on the Empress, who was too soft and gentle and knew nothing of the struggle to survive.
For that brief moment, Xifeng saw that what she had mistaken for weakness might have been a quiet strength instead.
I felt both annoyed at and sad for Wei. I liked that he genuinely loved Xifeng. I liked that he saw goodness in her and that he recognised Guma’s influence as toxic. However, I didn’t like that he was verging on Overprotective Boyfriend territory. That he never even asked Xifeng what she wanted and always assumed she’d be happy with what he would be happy with. That he didn’t trust Xifeng to speak for herself (e.g. with the Crown Prince). That he kept insisting all the bad in her was Guma’s fault because once Xifeng accepted that the bad was actually there, she also embraced Guma’s ideology more.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is badly written. I think he’s a well-written character with both flaws and virtues – a bit jealous, tactless but a huge capacity for love and sacrifice. However, his lack of tact next to Xifeng’s ability to manipulate her way into the Royal Palace makes him seem foolish at times.
Tiny rant with [SPOILER] because it’s been gnawing at me:
I thought he was an absolute idiot for killing Guma (IF he did, as it is heavily implied but not shown!). Boy, no matter how horrible someone’s parent is, they will always be their parent – you don’t just go ahead and kill them. Even if they hate them or don’t care for them – you just don’t. This is such delicate territory, and you literally just bludgeoned it worse than I thought was possible.
What’s it gonna achieve? The damage is already done! Killing the causative factor now will not help Xifeng at ALL. I don’t feel like it’s in Wei’s character to kill someone for personal revenge or self-satisfaction and yet I can’t see any other reason. Surely he didn’t think this would help Xifeng. Is he gonna come back in the second book with an attitude of ‘What do you mean you’re angry with me, I killed your mother! You should be thanking me, I did such a great and useful thing!’ because I will somehow get inside the book and slap him.
It felt new even though none of the elements technically are. It’s like Dao took Snow White, boiled it down to key elements, then somehow weaved these elements into a new story. I’m impressed – having this well-written backstory for the villain, I’m looking forward to seeing the next 2 in the series and hope they’re just as good if not better.
(If anyone could teach me how to insert a spoiler button, I’d be very grateful)