At some point in the past several years, I’ve been intrigued with the idea of taking a well-known, Europe-centric fairy tale and retelling it in a different culture. One of these ideas was an East-Asian culture. So when I heard that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao was a prequel of the classic Snow White fairy tale about the Evil Queen but the setting would be in East Asia, I was ecstatic.
Xifeng is destined for greatness by becoming the Empress of Feng Lu. But this path comes with great costs. She must spurn the man she loves, embrace the darkness within her, and exploit a dark magic by eating the hearts of those she’s killed. Meanwhile, other forces threaten her reign, and she must decide if there is anybody left in the world for her to trust.
To say that Forest of Thousand Lanterns is a dark story would be putting it lightly. This book oozes with black magic and twisted relationships. Xifeng is a complicated character with high ambitions and gray morals. She does what she must to embrace her destiny, not hesitating to kill and eat hearts. At times I pitied Xifeng, but I also feared her and worried for her. I wanted her to succeed yet I also wished she would break free from the vicious cycle consuming her life. There is a lot to Xifeng than she’s simply “evil” and jealous as the original fairy tale depicts the Evil Queen. (In addition, she doesn’t turn evil because of scorned love, which was a relief.)
The East Asian setting was perfect for the Snow White fairy tale. The details, the mythology… we need more books like this. I love the the idea of Snow White being the epitome of Asian beauty with skin untouched by the sun. In addition, I can already see aspects of the Snow White fairy tale coming into play, especially as this book sets up for the sequel. I like that the black magic gives a concrete reason why the ‘Evil Queen’ will ask the Huntsman for Snow White’s heart or that the tarot card readings about an adversary will cause Xifeng to loathe Jade White. I also like how myth played a part in the story and connected with the book’s title.
The beginning of the book starts off slow, and at first, I was confused about Xifeng’s fate/destiny and goals. Once she arrives in the Imperial City, however, the book picks up and becomes a lot more interesting. There isn’t a grand amount of action as the book focuses more on relationships and the drama that unfolds because of those connections.
This book definitely deals with a lot of mature content. There is murder and dark magic, concubines and handmaids that seethe with jealousy and rage, and a focus on what makes a person worthy. Because this book includes language, sex, and gruesome violence, I would recommend this book for an older YA audience in addition to any adults who may want an interesting twist on the Snow White tale.
Overall, this book was well developed and compelling. Despite not diving into the main meat of the Snow White story, the seeds of that story have been planted. I look forward to book two.