I was really looking forward to picking up Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress, #1) by Julie C. Dao, after seeing so many positive reviews for it. Unfortunately, this book just didn’t live up to my high expectations.
An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.
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.
Dao’s writing is very beautiful. She was able to really bring Feng Lu to life with her lush descriptions. It almost felt like this was a folktale being retold to the reader, which I really enjoyed. It made this retelling feel completely fresh and new. I never felt like I was trying to make comparisons to an Evil Queen story that we’re already familiar with, like Regina’s from Once Upon a Time.
However, my biggest issue with this book lies with the main character, Xifeng. I get that she’s technically supposed to be an “antihero”, but there’s nothing about her that even makes me want to root for her. I usually love a good antihero or villain, I really do! But what makes them be a good character, is that there is something that makes me sympathize with them and am able to understand the decisions they make. But Xifeng? NOTHING. I never sympathized with her or felt bad for her. She’s kind of just basically a bitch. So everyone talks about how beautiful you are and even though you’re educated, that’s all that you think is important? Uh, what? No honey, that just doesn’t make any sense. Not only that, but she also treats Wei like absolute crap. He’s the one guy who wants to protect her and quietly settle down with a quaint little home. But nope, she just thinks he’s weak because he doesn’t aspire to anything more than living a happy life with her. The only feelings I have towards Xifeng is the intense need to slap her. Yep, Larkin is feeling pretty aggressive!
Another thing was the romance between Wei and Xifeng… or should I say, supposed romance. I never felt there was actually any spark or love between the two. It just seemed very superficial. I didn’t like the way Xifeng treated him just because she thought he was holding her back from her destiny, but I also didn’t care one or another if they ended up together. I was just like, meh. And shouldn’t you want to root for romance? I know that I always do, at least before now.
I did enjoy the Emperor as a character though. He doesn’t even show up for almost 3/4 of the book, but when he finally did, I was instantly intrigued. I actually think that he is actually the only deep character in the whole book. There are many different layers to his character and I wish he had more of a presence in the story, as I would’ve liked to experience his character more. As for the Empress, she was the cliched version of the kind and quietly strong mother-type. Since she had a much larger presence in the novel, especially compared to the Emperor, I wish there had been more depth to her character.
Overall, this was a really unique and original retelling of the Evil Queen tale. I loved how organic the Asian influence felt, almost like it was always meant to be an Asian fairytale. However, almost all of the characters felt extremely superficial with no personality or redeeming qualities. It’s such a shame that this book didn’t live up to the hype for me. With such a great story, I would like to finish the series to see how Dao is able to turn it into her own. However, I just don’t think I can when I literally cannot connect with any of the characters and even hate the MC. If the next book changes course and instead follows Jade as the new main character, I may give it a chance. Other than that, I don’t see myself being able to continue with it.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5 Stars
Have you read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns? Did you enjoy it more than I did? Am I being too harsh with Xifeng? Should I try and continue with the series?