by Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress #1
Published on October 10, 2017 by Philomel Books
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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.
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This book is hard not to love. A masterful re-telling of the evil queen set against the backdrop of East Asia, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns introduces us to the tale of a villain you will fall in love with.
Xifeng is a character plagued with choices, and not all of the ones she makes are what we would consider “good.” Which, for me, made her all the more interesting. That’s what it comes down to with her for me. She. Is. Interesting. This is a young woman who is ambitious (I sensed a fellow Slytherin), who has had a tough past but is ready to make a new life for herself and nothing will stand in the way of that. I realized after I finished this book that she’s likely not a character that will win her way into every reader’s heart simply because she’s not written in a way that really made me emphasize with her, but I’m a sucker for villains so I adored her regardless.
I also love love LOVE that this book isn’t set in your standard pseudo-European setting. Dao has created a beautifully rich and dark story. This is not a book for the faint of heart. The plot grows darker and thicker as the book continues and then that ending. . . I just have no words. It was stunning.
Now there was a romance subplot and at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it but I realized that it wasn’t something that I could support in that I wanted it to happen, but that I knew there would be an ending. This book isn’t happy. But it is real.
Between the plot twists and the moral choices Xifeng has to make throughout, there wasn’t a full part of this book. Granted, at the beginning, the story does move a bit slow. Dao’s storytelling skills really come through as she sets the scene and once the plot picks up, all that stage-setting balances well and kept me hooked from beginning to end.
I couldn’t put this book down. It was intriguing and wonderfully written, with an anti-heroine character who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to get it. She is constantly at odds with the fate her aunt has told her time and again, her relationship with her aunt, with her childhood love Wei, and the imperial court. I can’t recommend this book enough and absolutely can’t wait for the next one!