Guest Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Publisher: Philomel Books
Hardcover, 363 Pages
Published October 2017

Summary: 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. 

Today on the blog we have a guest review from Harker over at The Hermit LibrarianThey were kind enough to stop by and review Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and share their thoughts on it, and we couldn't be more excited to have them here as our guest reviewer for today! So without further ado, let's get into it!

CW: abuse (mental and physical), images of gore

The idea of an origin story for a villain is very intriguing and what villain is more iconic that the Evil Queen? Julie C. Dao creates an East Asian fantasy world for our new evil queen, Xifeng, to begin her journey in and watching her take those first steps toward her destiny was certainly something to behold. There were remnants of the old story, such as the mirror (here a mysterious waterfall) and the familiar roles, to hearken back to the Snow White tale, but recreated in a pleasing manner.

Xifeng was someone to watch out for early on, even before knowing extensively about her character. Her beauty being one thing, something that counted for much in her society, but beyond that there were subtle hints at the intelligence she possessed within. What she withholds, what she says in the presence of her aunt Guma, plus the personal observations she makes about her surroundings and circumstances, illuminate a well-cultivated character.

As underhanded as some of the things Xifeng and Guma seek to do, these machinations are understandable, given the circumstances they live in and what Xifeng can expect if she doesn't rise up and improve her station. There's a scene early in when she walks through the village, reflecting on what she'll never have to see again if she makes it to the palace. This scene drives home a good portion of the why in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and there are people, once at the palace, that never let Xifeng forget what she could return to. This fate is possibly the worst of all and knowing what this means to them, even disapproving of these actions doesn't mean not being able to see why they might be committed.  

The darkness growing within Xifeng had its exceptionally present moments, such as when she mentioned the voice within or when the serpent appeared in her dreams or a reflection distorted, but perhaps the more disturbing aspects were its subtleties. Xifeng protested against the Serpent Lord at times, against what succumbing to him might mean, but her descent into the influence of it is evident in her growing selfishness, particularly regarding Wei. Little things such as the way she treated him, not letting him go and admitting to herself on some level that he is no more than a possession to her, something she despises being treated as, serve as outward clues to the reader even if Xifeng herself didn't realize it.

Xifeng and Guma's relationship was a twisted, complicated thing. Guma raised Xifeng to become Empress someday, making sure she was educated, retaining her beautiful face, and the like. However, she was incredibly manipulative and abusive, both physically and mentally, constantly wielding both words, her hands and cane against Xifeng to bend her to Guma's will. 

Despite this, there's a sense of duty and a kind of "love" that Xifeng feels for Guma, the only mother she's ever known. This tie to her abuser is familiar and was a bit sickening, a bit sad. The worst of it is, nothing changes, really, throughout the book. Even when Xifeng has moments of clarity about her relationship with Guma, the ties that bind them still refuse to break. She still wishes for Guma's approval, despite the abuse. I found this most terrifying, I think, because it's reflective of reality. While it would've been ideal for Xifeng, destined as she is to be who she is, to have some measure of freedom from the horror of her past, reality doesn't always work that way. The people that raise us, that abuse us, are sometimes entwined with us in such ways that, like Xifeng, we always seek their approval, even as we acknowledge that they're poison.

There were issues with pacing that formed the bulk of my problem with the story. While there were scenes that were of interest, the descriptions of them lovely and intricate, it felt like it took too long to get to anything important. I kept wondering, when would Xifeng get to some Evil Queening already? Even after setting the book aside, I had to ask myself, had this book really been satisfactory? It still felt a bit unbalanced, like something was missing. 

I'm not sure how this will play out with the sequel coming out in November, as that story is told from another character's perspective so we won't see Xifeng as the main character anymore. Will the balance come back? Will there finally be some true villainy worthy of the title Evil Queen? It feels like Xifeng as a lot to live up to with that being the inspiration for her character and I'm not sure she's quite there yet or if she'll get that chance. I truly hope she will because after what she's had to sacrifice, after the cunning she's shown and the intensity of her core, she needs this chance to truly shine as Empress.

We'd like to once again thank Harker for stopping by The Book Bratz today to post this guest review. Don't forget to check out their blog!

** Psst! Interested in guest reviewing on The Book Bratz? Shoot us an email at or DM us on Twitter (@thebookbratz) and we'd love to have you!

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