I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve been following this book for what feels like ages, ever since I stumbled upon a tweet by Julie C Dao celebrating getting a book deal. In the months since, I’ve seen excitement for the book continue to grow, with readers and authors alike talking about it, so I was chuffed when I finally got a copy. I’m so pleased to say that this book actually surpassed my expectations, feeding my love for morally grey characters and leaving me wanting more and more of Julie’s writing.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an East-Asian inspired fantasy novel about a young girl, Xifeng, who is determined to become Empress of her kingdom, Feng-Lu. It seems impossible, after all, she is only a seamstress, far from the Imperial City, but her aunt’s fortune telling cards tell of her destiny as Empress, and she does not question fate. After leaving home to head to the Imperial City, it seems that the stars have aligned to help Xifeng reach her goal. She is accepted into the Emperor’s household, but as a maid. A bigger problem is the fact that the Emperor has a wife, two other concubines, and four sons. How will Xifeng secure her fate, and how far will she go to get it?
My favourite thing about this book was that Xifeng was not a nice girl. That seems harsh, and perhaps it is, but it’s also true. I don’t mean this in a nitpicking way. Xifeng is selfish, ambitious, and determined to the point of being willing to walk over anyone else to get what she wants. She has set her sights on being Empress, and she will do anything, and does more than the unimaginable, to get it. There were scenes that were difficult to read, and events in the book that change your opinion of Xifeng for good, but it all adds to the complexity of the tale, and of Xifeng herself.
When the book begins, we don’t yet know if she is an unwilling pawn in a game of her aunt’s, whether she even wants to follow this path that has been set out before her, but as Xifeng takes step after step down the path, and as she knocks opponents and obstacles out of her way, we see her accepting her own desires, and embracing her ambitious selfishness and the darkness that lies within her soul. By the end of the novel, there is no doubt that Xifeng is not the pure, innocent girl that we thought she was at the start of the novel. She is dark, evil even, but having followed her along her whole journey, it is difficult to ignore the humanity in her that even she has set aside. Xifeng’s characterisation made this book so easy to read for me.
I loved seeing the exploration of her character reach new depths, and couldn’t get enough of deciphering her morals, or lack of them. What seemed like a bit of a cookie cutter female protagonist in the first pages, turned out to be a character of many layers, with surprises lurking beneath each and every one. When the book ended, I was shocked. I kept expecting a redemption arc, a sorrowful and repenting protagonist, eager to right her wrongs, but Xifeng doesn’t regret anything that she has done to get what she wants, and as horrifying as that is, I also found it refreshing and exciting to read a character do so confidently.
Overall, I really adored Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I’d love to read it again in the future to explore Xifeng some more. Whilst this book might not be for readers who like to like their protagonists, or for those who don’t like violence and gore, I would still recommend giving it a try and letting it challenge you. I like morally ambiguous characters, and still, Xifeng even challenged me. Julie C Dao writes Xifeng in a way that you still hold out some hope for her, and you’re so reluctant to let go of it, and that made reading Forest of a Thousand Lanterns a really interesting experience for me personally. I really think that this book has pushed the boundaries of YA fiction, and I hope to see more books like it.