“She would bloom where she was planted and let her roots close around the throats of her enemies.”
Xifeng has grown up knowing two things. That she is beautiful. And that she is destined for greatness. She is meant to be Empress, that’s what the cards her aunt reads tells her. But, there is no gain without sacrifice.
But just because her aunt believes in her future as Empress, doesn’t mean she’s been kind to Xifeng. She is cruel, beating her and teaching her that beauty is her only strength. That blood magic runs through her veins and must be respected and embraced. And that she must turn her back on Wei, the only person kind and gentle to her, the only man who loves her.
Xifeng embraces her fate, leaving her aunt and heading to her place next to the Emperor. Her journey presents her with many obstacles, and even after, she is given a choice. To accept her destiny, no matter the cost or consequence. Or forge her own path.
“But isn’t it better not to know? Isn’t it better to wake up each day, living for the present rather than waiting for the future?”
There have been some delicious retellings done lately, but none is quite as delicious as Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns. It isn’t just a retelling. Sure, it has the bones of the Evil Queen in Snow White. But, to say that is what this book is, is to drastically undersell it.
It’s also not just a retelling in a new land. This is an interwoven and complex story that is rich in detail and lore. This is how retelling should be done, taking the idea of one story and making it something entirely new. And as far as villain stories go, I don’t think I’ve ever been so thoroughly seduced by the dark path as I was with Xifeng. She is deliberate in her choice. Merciless in her desires. And so unapologetic in going after what she wants. She seizes her inner power so entirely, you can’t help but root for her when she does. Even though you know what the path leads to.
The writing in this debut is stunning. Words and phrases that seduce as thoroughly as Xifeng’s journey. I was enthralled with the exquisite beauty Dao was able to bring to life. Everything felt enchanting, even, or maybe especially, the dark magic underlying the plot.
“One had to stab into others and climb over them, slick with blood, because the sun shone at the top, and that was all that mattered in this sick and lonely life.”
I love a good villain story, and while I appreciate when villains are given sympathetic back stories, I also relish a story that simply makes me believe in their path to damnation. Not all villains should be cliche. Or predictable. Or likable. Some should be complex, and understandable, even if we don’t agree with their choices. And Xifeng gives me all of that and more. I get it. I get why she makes the choices she makes. But even better, so does she. That clarity and conscious decision making is part of her evil charm, and makes it difficult for me to dislike her. Regardless of whether I agree, she is in control and aware, and I love that about her.
Sometimes I think we want our female villains to be understandable. Or relatable. We want them to be pushed into their choices, or vengeful in their making. That to be relentlessly ambitious is on par with being unlikable. And here I vehemently disagree. While sometimes that suits the character, so too does being unapologetic in going after what one wants. Xifeng wants to be Empress. She isn’t reluctant to accept her fate, not really. She knows she has a choice, but she doesn’t particularly care for them. She isn’t caught in an internal struggle. She regrets that she has to do certain things, but not enough to make a different choice.
“If beauty is my greatest weapon, vanity is the shield that protects me.”
Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns is breathtaking! Every single thing about it is fantastic. The writing is gorgeous, the plot is delicious, and the villainy is superb. Julie Dao has made me fall in love with her writing, and I knew I had to read the sequel from the very first pages of this book. Stay tuned for that review, as I’ve already devoured it!
If you love writing that is mouth-watering delicious, and a dark story filled with dark magic, grab this book immediately. You won’t regret it.