My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 363 pages
Release date: 10 October 2017
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.
A lot of books are being tagged as “fucked up” these days. For the most part, I rolled my eyes whenever I saw one of those descriptions, because I’d read the book and it wasn’t that bad. I went into Forest of a Thousand Lanterns with the same skepticism that I’d find Red Queen‘s edgy cousin instead of an actual grimdark/gritty read. Well, I was wrong. This NA high fantasy, essentially Macbeth meets And I Darken if Lada were Wu Zetian, is every bit as depraved as the reviews promise.
Even the blurb doesn’t do this story justice. “Callous magic?” “Sorcery fuelled by eating the hearts of the recently killed?” The tip of the iceberg, I say. It gets quite a bit worse than that. I can feel my stomach turning as I type out this review. *shudder* Honestly, the bad part isn’t graphic violence and gore, because there’s so much worse of that out there, but the psychological horror of the premise (you’ll know what I mean by that when you see it) compounded by Xifeng’s utterly amoral mind. She is the first YA/NA lead I can wholeheartedly classify as a villain protagonist–from my point of view, despite what others may say, she’s not an anti-heroine the way Lada Dracul or even The Young Elites‘s Adelina Amouteru is. Xifeng has zero redeeming qualities, and her self-serving motives are truly unsympathetic. I found myself hating her a lot.
And yet, even in her worst moments, there was something in me that wanted her to succeed. I empathised with her despite my revulsion, which I chalk up to a combination of Julie Dao’s elegant writing and the fact that almost everyone around her is such an asshole that I couldn’t be too bothered when she dished out sadistic revenge on them. That said, I was hoping for Xifeng to step back from the abyss and redeem herself at every turn, knowing all the while that she would only continue down her tragic destiny. I’m intrigued to see how far she’ll be able to go before the forces that be stop her–it’d be an outstandingly bold choice if Dao has an ending planned where they never do end her reign of evil, but I doubt it’ll happen. The book’s been billed as an Evil Queen retelling, which makes me wonder if [that character] will be Xifeng’s downfall in the sequel.
To be honest, there weren’t many plot twists which surprised me. For the most part, things go approximately like you’d expect them to as Xifeng uses her beauty and magic to rise ever higher in the Imperial Court. Along the way she steps over just about everyone who gets in her way and a fair few who don’t. The person who draws the shortest end of the stick here is Wei, the NiceGuy who she strings along without hesitation for her own ends. That she seems to feel some remorse/conflicted emotions makes her manipulation, one of the qualities I least liked about her, particularly annoying. If she was going to do what she did anyway, she might as well carry on about it with more enthusiasm, which would at least have made it fun to watch.
On the pacing, it is a slow grind at the start. Just bear with it–it’ll pay off later, trust me. I was tempted to DNF in the first few chapters, but I’m so glad I forced myself to keep on going. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns shares a lot with classical historical fiction in that explicitly written scenes are merely snapshots in a larger picture, so a lot of time passes quite abruptly in between chapters. Don’t be surprised if you flip the page and the next sentence begins “three months later…” without breaking stride. The chronological range adds a touch of realism to a plot that would have beggared disbelief if it took place within any less than several years, so I definitely see why it was necessary to make such time skips in order to bring the book to its intended ending spot. Which was the perfect spot, too, if you think of this novel as a villain origin story.