This debut novel by Julie Dao is the first book in the Rise of the Empress series. The series explores the imagined youth of Snow White’s Evil Queen in an East Asian-inspired fantasy setting. Xifeng, the protagonist, is a strong, complex young woman struggling to choose between a path of light and dark. She knows the right thing to do, but a voice inside of her urges her on towards evil.
There’s a lot to praise about this novel: Xifeng, our heroine, is strong and powerful, but at the same time she is not immune to the culture and mores of her time. She has to be careful to seem humble and ladylike as she forges her way towards becoming the next Empress of Feng Lu. At the same time, she is more spirited than the women in classic fairy tales. She propels herself by her own choices, not quietly accepting what the world throws at her. Another divergence from the norms: following her destiny for greatness means leaving behind Wei, Xifeng’s handsome boyfriend who longs to marry her and live a quiet life together. We are told that Wei is meant to play some role in Xifeng’s fate, but it’s clear that Xifeng’s journey will be more about realizing her destiny than finding her one true love.
Xifeng feels that her greatest power is her beautiful face, and takes great care to protect it, even going so far as to take the souls of two rabbits to heal a cut. We know from the Snow White story that her protection of her beauty will ultimately lead to her undoing, but Dao’s treatment of Xifeng’s vanity is really well done. It’s easy to look down on Xifeng for her flaws, but in reality women were (and still are) highly praised for their beauty. Xifeng’s flaws make her all the more complex of a character. She decides fight against her own worst impulses.
Set in Feng Lu, an imaginary empire inspired by East Asia, the world Xifeng inhabits is richly drawn. Dao has thought about every element of her world, from economy and class to the magic system. Every plant and animal in the world has a spirit – the forest is guarded by Tengaru who watch and retaliate against any travelers who damage the land. Xifeng’s aunt teaches her dark magic that involves drinking the life’s blood – the heart – of animals, but the Tengaru Queen warns her that using such magic will damage her own soul.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a lovely retelling that adds diversity and a new perspective to a well loved tale. Readers will eagerly read to find out what path Xifeng chooses to take: the poison apple, or a quiet life with Wei.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.