There is always a thrill in reading something out of your comfort zone. When it comes to fantasies, I either extremely love it or hate it. In a way, I felt that Forest of A Thousand Lanterns seems like a fresh take, and me being the oh-so lazy synopsis reader that I am, was smitten by the highlighted words on every blurb that I read about it: East Asian setting and Evil Queen origin story. And above everything else, everyone was raving about it. So me being me, wanting not to pass up the opportunity to read, went in and I was expecting to be blown away. This is why expectations can disappoint us sometimes.
Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling
Date Published: 10th of October 2017
Series: Rise of the Empress #1
Publisher: Philomel Books
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.
Well, at least we can confirm that something was triggered inside me after finishing it. If I were to base it on the spur of my emotions alone due to the twists and turns that the book headed, Forests of A Thousand Lanterns would have received a near-perfect score from me. I found the story fantastic. But there was something off. There was this nagging voice inside of my head that kept on saying, “Did you really like it? Think about it. What would you say?”. So I reconsidered, since it is my duty as a book blogger to be honest and subjective with my reviews. In the end I decided to give in to the nagging voice, and I rated it as honestly as I could. Right there I realized: I had too much to complain about this book.
I received an unsolicited digital advanced reader’s copy of this book from Penguin Random House. This did not affect my opinions about the book and it’s characters in any way.
In perspective, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an interesting take on the origins of the Evil Queen. Julie C. Dao has a pleasant writing style and I found the setting brilliant. Julie’s writing style is interesting in a way. Though it was a bit hard to get into at first, it becomes steady at a point. Once I found the rhythm, it was easy for my eyes to stay glued on the book. Meanwhile, the setting for this story became more extravagant as the story progressed, reflecting on our main character’s journey to become the Empress of Feng Lu. It started simple, then increasingly became more magical and stunning. The setting was rich, and imagining it can bring joy to the reader. The book also featured a colorful cast, coming and going as the beat of the story drummed to its climax.
I enjoyed the second part more, as it unraveled answers and mysteries that I had been questioning during the first act. It sparked a burning passion inside the head of our main anti heroine, to take the lead and do what she can to achieve the destiny that she is entitled to.
However, there are a few setbacks. I have some unpopular opinions about this book.
The array of characters felt like a double-edged sword. On one hand, you get to read about a whole cast revolving around our main character. But on the other, they also need to be handled properly. I felt like some of the characters had the potential to have an arc that could have been developed, yet they were not given the chance to do so. Due to this fact, they felt very flat and two-dimensional. This frustrates me because they were truly fascinating characters. I could feel them moving, animated to unfold a story. I was invested on seeing them grow alongside our main character. Instead, they remained under developed and eventually casually discarded. It was like they were just there for our main lead’s convenience. And speaking of our main lead, I thoroughly disliked Xifeng. Though the story was written in third-person perspective, her moral dilemma felt like it was just there to prolong the agony. I like that she took chances to unravel the fate that was destined for her, truly. Yet I felt that she was apathetic, only having concern when the situation is about herself, and her inner thoughts were never concerned with the people around her. Like the others, this is why she felt two dimensional and her actions predictable.
The plot, I could say, felt terribly convenient for Xifeng. There was no struggle, no nothing. A few bumps here and there, but that is just about it. Why not just hand everything to her in a silver platter? I also found the romance involved in this story to be cringe worthy. It lacked an emotional system and depth. There was no spark in the words uttered by our two lovers, and no matter how many times they said they cared for each other, the back of my head says “Really?”
This story actually caused an inner conflict in me. Since it is an anti heroine story, did Julie actually succeed with this story by making me loathe Xifeng? Or did she want me to root for her, but in the obvious sense I did not?
When it comes down to it, I wanted to like this book. It was met with such high praise, so I set the bar on top. In a way, I want more books like these, rich in folklore from cultures that I am fascinated by. There some aspects that I liked, and there were glaring aspects that I loathed very much. Would I read the second book of this series? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.
(Know more about my rating system here.)
So, penny for your thoughts?