ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns {Julie C. Dao} - in which it's impossible not to root for the villain

I tweet a lot about these fairy tale favorites. Inspired by historical China, they represent the Before and After of an enchanting Evil Queen / Snow White duology. In celebration of Julie's third book, SONG OF THE CRIMSON FLOWER, getting its cover, let's check out the books where the Great Forest was born. Plus Julie had #coversnake before it was cool.  We'll start with FOREST. Stay tuned for the sequel review later this week!
title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
author: Julie C. Dao
pages: 363
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 4/5
genre: Fantasy
topics: Fairy tale, Chinese-inspired setting, Magic, Antihero, Political intrigue 
CW: violence, murder

4 stars - I really liked it

FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS is one of those soft, slow-burning books that doesn’t hit you in the face with action. Instead, it builds up layer by layer until you’re trapped in its beautiful, sinister world. That’s to say, it may feel slow at the start, but stick with it. It’s a villain origin story, reimagining the Evil Queen from Snow White in a world inspired by historical China. A place where the Great Forest is full of mythical demons and arcane magics.

I found that so much of the punch from this story came from the interactions between the characters and the complicated web of Xifeng’s interiority. She was compelling from the start. A poor small town girl with dreams of escaping her circumstances and rising to consequence, using the only currency she has: her wit and her beautiful face. As the insinuates herself into the emperor’s household and heart, you know she’s being cutthroat and conniving. But you also can’t help rooting for her. Because she’s clever and ambitious. She was born into rough circumstances, and in her world, being ruthless is the only way to get ahead.

It’s like watching Cersei Lannister, for you GAME OF THRONES fans. Because as much as I admired Xifeng’s single-minded determination and smarts, I could also see the cracks forming. The signs that her ambition was toeing too close to a line. For Xifeng, it’s when she begins to experiment with dark magic. She begins to lose the soft parts of herself, to reject the girl who loved Wei, a soldier from her small town, who grows increasingly desperate to stop her from slipping beyond the grasp of humanity into true evil.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the way that Julie plays with elements of the original Snow White fairytale is wicked clever. She answers some of the questions in the tale: where did the Queen get her magical power? And what was she going to do with Snow White’s heart? Much of the tension in the plot came from my own ambivalence, as a reader, between wanting Xifeng to rise to all the power she deserved, and fearing that she was going too far to ever be saved. It’s a clever writer who can make you root for the villain.

Although this is fantasy, the magic is only one layer of the story. The larger and perhaps most interesting plot centers around Xifeng’s attempts to navigate court politics and secure her place, in a palace where everyone has secrets. She joins forces with Kang, head of the eunuchs, and probably my second favorite character. He’s just as clever and conniving as Xifeng, and the two of them together are like this unstoppable secret force. Got a secret? You can bet they’ll find it out and turn it against you. It was fun to see two people from lower circumstances tricking and one-upping all the sneering courtiers. Plus Julie has a sharp, melodic writing style that adds a fairytale loveliness to every page. Her descriptions of the scenery, clothing, and food bring the world of the Great Forest to vibrant life.

I would definitely recommend FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS to any fairy tale buff. It’s a slow start, and there are some times it droops in the middle. But it’s worth sticking with, because Xifeng is such a compelling, complex narrator, ruthless and cutthroat and clever and hopeful. Julie renders her with empathy, neither shying away from her evil deeds nor ignoring the good parts of her and the wretched circumstances that made her who she is. Julie delivers a satisfying ending, which still resonates with the promise that the story isn’t over.

No comments:

Post a Comment