Book Review: THE FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS by Julie C. Dao

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Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

This is a book by an East Asian author (Dao is Vietnamese-American) about an all-Asian cast. All characters in the book are people of color, and the worldbuilding in the book, I believe draws specifically from China.*

This is also a book that focuses in on gender, but specifically on cis women. It’s a woman-driven story. Gender and sexuality are complicated throughout–since roughly half of the book takes place in the imperial City of Women, cis men are present, but largely sidelined unless they are eunuchs.**

There is a narrative thread that comes and goes through the book around disability. Shiro is a character with dwarfism, and he is portrayed as being oppressed because he is a dwarf, but not self-loathing. He also has a romance arc. There is also a consort of the Emperor, Lady Meng, who struggles with depression and alcoholism.

TL;DR: there’s a lot of rep along a lot of axes here, so it’s definitely worth picking up!

Content Warnings for Book

  • Physical abuse (Guma beats Xifeng)
  • Gaslighting (arguably Xifeng does this to Wei throughout; this also happens to Empress Lihua)
  • Gore (there is some supernatural and pretty explicit gore that happens throughout the book)
  • Ableism (leveled at Shiro in some places)

Review

The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao is an origin story for the evil queen in Snow White, if that familiar fairy tale was set in a reimagined East Asia full of magic. Xifeng is uncannily beautiful, but poor. Her aunt, Guma, sees in her fortune a path to power predicated on her beauty, and in their small shack, she trains Xifeng in poetry, music, and comportment as if she was highborn. One day, Xifeng will be empress. It’s just a matter of getting there.

There is much to like in The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. Dao is excellent at creating tension and unease in her writing. In Xifeng, she gives us a female protagonist who is unflinchingly and unsparingly ambitious. Too often when female protagonists are ambitious, they must also be soft, be likable, be yielding. But Xifeng is none of those things. Xifeng plays for keeps, for herself, and never once does she hesitate.

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Xifeng is maybe the most slytherin slytherin who ever slytherined

There are scenes in the book which are heart-wrecking. There is one scene in particular that happens in Chapter 31 that has stuck with me since I read the book. It’s a reveal scene that flips on its head things that Xifeng thought she knew about her own past and herself. It recasts a character I thought I knew as a reader into something entirely new. It is marvelous.

But, it also completely calls into question Xifeng’s agency for the last third of the book. For the first two thirds of the book I did not question that the choices she’s made are her own. After this lovely and exquisitely written scene, I did. Were the hard, violent choices she made truly her own? Or was she a weapon–a willing weapon, maybe, but a weapon wielded buy someone else? And this is a massive weakness of the book.

The other issues I had with The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns were structural. I found the pacing uneven. Some sections, like the scenes mentioned above, were a delight to read. Some sections dragged. Dao’s prose is sometimes precise and cutting, and sometimes it’s overwrought. As much as she understands Xifeng, many of the other characters are two dimensional, archetypal. Lady Sun is a character we’ve seen before: an aging concubine using her sexuality and fecundity as a cudgel to preserve her position in a cutthroat, catty women’s world. Empress Lihao is an impossibly demure and forgiving woman, willing to take abuse in order to show that kindness is more powerful in the long run. As interesting and novel as Xifeng is, the rest of the characters are flat.

Because of these issues, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was a frustrating read for me. It is a book of such potential, and it did not gel for me. It explores issues of movement within patriarchal prisons, the idea of beauty as a weapon, the nature of uncompromising women, but the seams show in the writing. It was by turns sublime and mundane. But, this is the kind of book, truly, where your mileage may vary, so I encourage others to pick it up and form their own opinions on it.

Takeaway and Rating

Many, many people loved this book, so I encourage you to check it out! I found it unevenly paced but interesting. If you like diverse fairy tale retellings and sympathetic villains, you might like The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.

3 stars

*Many of the names read as influenced by Japanese language to me, though, so there seemed to be a generally “East-Asian” flavor with more of a Chinese cultural focus. But the appearance of the random very Japanese names (like Akira and Hideki) struck me as odd since the cultures are not identical by any stretch.

**The eunuchs make up a large contingent of the secondary characters, and I am listing them here as cis men, since they uniformly identified as men. There are interesting, if unexplored, questions about their presence and relationship to the women about femininity, masculinity, and gender.