Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns Is The Dark-Sided Origin Story I Craved

forest of a thousand lanterns
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao. (c) Penguin Young Readers

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an engrossing debut from Julie C. Dao. Set in an Asian-inspired world, the fantasy young-adult novel follows the beautiful Xifeng and her rise to power. I benefited greatly from not reading the marketing materials or book jacket until about three-quarters through the book, because they reveal something fairly obvious in hindsight: this book retells the story of the Evil Queen from Snow White. To know this information in advance means you know exactly where the story is headed and robs a lot of tension from a narrative that works hard to embrace a sense of the main character’s ambivalence.

If you’ve ever read a story, watched a movie, or played a game where the protagonist struggles with their dark side and secretly rooted for them to give into evil’s seductive call, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is absolutely the novel for you. And if you have a secret love of luxurious yet internecine harem or concubine scenarios (don’t @ me, but the Ooku manga is phenomenal and Empresses in the Palace is one of the best things to binge on Netflix), you will be fascinated by the sumptuous settings and malevolent conspiracies in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.

And if you just can’t get enough of fairy tale retellings, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns’ setting, character focus, and supernatural shenanigans are each compelling enough on their own to support a new retelling. Dao wonderfully combines all three of those things in her novel, and I’m feeling a bit spoiled.

Xifeng lives with her abusive aunt Guma in a dirty rural village she hates, where the only spot of passion and hope is her mega-hot boyfriend Wei. Guma has read in the tarot cards that Xifeng is destined to become Empress of all Feng Lu, and Xifeng is as wary of this destiny as she is excited by it. Guma is manipulative like Tangled ’s Mother Gothel and mixes physical abuse with emotional predation to chain Xifeng and her glorious destiny to her as long as possible.

Instead, Xifeng flees, her head filled with determination to seize her destiny. Her fortune also foretells a “Fool” she must find and defeat. After a terrifying (and shockingly gory) supernatural encounter in an ancient forest, she arrives in the capital city, where she manages to get a foothold on her dream by becoming a lady-in-waiting at the Palace. And while Xifeng intended to hold onto Wei, she ultimately lets go with sturm und drang, not over hurting him, but over his place in her future. Her obsession with the cards and their predictions of her future are intense.

At the Palace, Xifeng manages to make a single friend and numerous enemies as she struggles to get face time in front of the Emperor. Xifeng fights a bitter internal battle: how ruthless should she be? Does she dare risk her soul, despite the dire warnings she’s received, both supernatural and otherwise? A series of shocking revelations later, Xifeng makes her choice with grim, deeply satisfying and brutal finality.

Once Xifeng decides who she’s going to be, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns almost seems to lose interest in itself. The will-she-won’t-she tension as Xifeng debates the best way to achieve her destiny at lowest personal cost disappears. In the final third of the book, Xifeng transforms into a completely different character from the Xifeng we’ve come to know so well. There’s very good reason why, but it’s still a let down. It’s no longer a thrilling read when the character can get everything they want with nothing standing in their way, no matter what exciting dark powers they invoke to do it. That may, perhaps, be why Forest of a Thousand Lanterns feels so rushed at the end; there’s just not much left to linger on.

However, because we know this is a retelling of Snow White, we know that Xifeng’s comeuppance is on its way. By the time the book ends, we even know at whose hands it arrives. The book ends with the titular forest glittering with Xifeng’s destined fall from grace, one we now know she will do anything to forestall.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is called “A Rise of the Empress novel” on its cover, which indicates this is the first book of a series. I’m deeply curious whether the next books will also feature Xifeng as the protagonist, scraping and fighting to keep what she has as her challenger, the “Fool,” approaches.

It’s bittersweet: I root for this dark protagonist and all her tainted victory, but the mythical malevolence behind her destined rise will also be responsible for her destined fall. I don’t want to watch her fall, at least not from inside her own head as everything she’s worked so hard for crumbles. Perhaps we’ll have more supernatural and political intricacies before we witness Xifeng fall: that would be welcome. Maybe Xifeng’s challenger will restore some of who Xifeng once was before her fateful choice.

Who knows? I don’t, but I can’t wait to find out. Have you read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns ? Feel free to talk to me @ndmedinaaa and follow us on @PlayerDotOne for more sci-fi and fantasy goodness.

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