Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Julie C. Dao’s debut novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, has been on my TBR list since it was released in mid-October. I was so excited to see a YA novel immersed in East Asian culture, from the overall setting (the fictional nation of Feng Lu) to the intricate mythologies, names, and societal structures. As an Asian American, I was also looking forward to be given some representation through the wide variety of Asian characters included in the book. Of course, the premise of the story alone was reason to read, and I quickly found myself enraptured in protagonist’s Xifeng’s journey to fulfill her destiny.

Despite a humble, obscure life in a rural village, Xifeng has been told that she is destined for greatness. Her cruel aunt grooms her to be a noblewoman, and shows Xifeng her royal future in magical rituals. However, Xifeng knows that fulfilling this future could come at a great cost, from losing her lover, Wei, to losing her soul. And even then, the premonitions are vague, and threatened by an unknown figure opposing Xifeng. Nonetheless, Xifeng eventually decides to pursue this fate herself, departing from all she knows for the Imperial City. As she progresses, moving closer and closer to the power she seeks, she must use her wit, prowess, and beauty to overcome obstacles on her journey and enemies within the royal court. Additionally, she must vie with the darkness within her, a darkness that hungers for blood and the same power Xifeng craves.

A fractured fairytale of Snow White, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns positions the classic characters into a fresh context, and provides compelling depth to many of them as well. Indeed at many times throughout my reading I forgot it was a fairytale and felt that Dao moved far away enough from the classic plot to allow the novel to function well on its own. However, it showed enough respect to the tale that any Snow White fan will be enamored by the book, especially if they enjoyed retellings like that of Once Upon a Time.

Moreover, in the frame of the story Dao crafts a sublime richness through her vivid and astounding imagery. Especially when placed in the royal palace, the scenes exude color and light, providing an opulent tone that makes the reader feel as though they are there themselves. At the same time, Dao’s diction is readable, and so regardless of their splendidness, the reader can digest the descriptions with relative ease.

Another key strong point of the novel is Xifeng, who is given complexities and characteristics not normally exhibited in YA protagonists. She is extremely ambitious, confident, and resourceful. Although sympathetic, she is also not “good” or “bad,” and Dao makes certain to imbue her with a moral ambiguity that keeps readers guessing her next move. Finally, her love and lover, Wei, do not define her, and she and her story are so much more than her romantic subplot. It’s a refreshing character to have as a protagonist, especially when the character is much more one-dimensional in the Brothers Grimm version.

In summary, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a delightful, engaging read that any fairytale or general YA reader will enjoy. It provides a new, diverse twist on a classic tale, while diverging enough to be enjoyed just as a normal novel.

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