Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress #1)
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy | Retelling
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: October 10, 2017
Source: ALAAC
Format: ARC

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 (goodreads). 

While deliciously evil, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns didn't hit the mark for me. 
Plot: As an Eastern Asian retelling of Snow White's Evil Queen, I was ready for a morally complex story similar to Queen Levana in Fairest, but I can't say that was delivered. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns had my attention from the first page as poor village girl Xifeng lamented that she was not chosen as one of the emperor's many concubines. What followed was Xifeng's many manipulations to become the Empress that she knew she was destined to be while making some pretty big sacrifices along the way. 

To me, the pacing was very off. I thought that the beginning was strong but then my attention started waning once Xifing began her journey to the palace. I was interested again once Xifeng entered court life and had to maneuver around the many different enemies within the palace walls, and then promptly became bored around page 200. While an interesting backstory to explore, I'm not sure if I'm invested enough in Xifeng's story to continue this series. 

Characters: Xifeng was beautiful and deadly, but I had no idea what made her tick. A good villain for me is someone who thinks that s/he is doing what is right for the world; I love a villain who makes me question my moral stance. Xifeng was none of those things. Her mother figure, Guma, told her from an early age that she was meant to rule alongside Emperor Jun and kept her beautiful and educated enough to catch someone's eye. While it's clear that Guma most likely wanted the wealth and prestige, I don't understand why Xifeng was so fixated on it - going as far as to give up loved ones just to find a way into the palace walls. There was a list of characters outlined in the beginning of the book, but none of them really stood out to me in the end. 

Worldbuilding: Dao's world was absolutely beautiful and I loved all of the eastern influences I was able to pinpoint. Palace life was lush and deadly and I wanted more time with Xifeng exploring the Imperial City and developing an understanding of the people. There is quite a bit of blood magic in this book as well as demons I hope will play a larger role in the sequel. While this is a Snow White retelling, clear indicators of the fairytale aren't evident until the last 80 pages or so. 

Short N Sweet: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was beautifully written, but Xifeng wasn't a character I could sympathize with. 

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