“She would bloom where she was planted and let her roots close around the throats of her enemies.”
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.
TW: physical/emotional abuse, gore/mutilation, death
Oh goodness, where do I begin? I honestly loved reading this book, though I was a little wary going in. It’s a retelling of Snow White, but focusing on the Evil Queen’s origins, and in the past, I’ve never much enjoyed retellings. They always feel flat and predictable to me. In this case, though, I loved almost every second of this book, and knowing it was a retelling made it enjoyable.
Any other time, I would have been so frustrated with a character who goes on and on about her beauty, who looks at the other women in her life exclusively as enemies. It’s not a pretty look. But in this case, knowing from the beginning that this is the Evil Queen, the one who would order Snow White dead just for being the fairest, it was fascinating. For Xifeng, her beauty is a weapon in her climb to the top. It is the tool that gets her what she wants, when she wants it. She relies on it in order to reach her goals, and understands exactly how to weaponize it, and I loved the fact that she isn’t evil because she’s beautiful and vain. Xifeng is evil (or on her way to becoming more and more so, if you prefer) because of how she uses her beauty and why, and that’s a much more compelling origin story. That, and she’s not evil because of a man, which is such a tired old trope. She’s evil for her own sake and that’s fascinating.
The other thing I loved without expecting to was the pacing. In most cases, the slow pacing wouldn’t work, but again, knowing that this is a fairy tale retelling made it all click into place. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns isn’t about adventure and action so much as it is about court intrigue and murder, and Xifeng doesn’t have room to act suddenly or brashly if she wants to succeed. Every step has to be carefully considered, which worked well with the almost lyrical style the book was written in.
Really, my only complaint was with the first third of the book. It picks up a little slowly, with a segment devoted to traveling that’s mostly on the dull side save for a demonic encounter in the forest. Plus, it focuses a lot on Xifeng’s relationship with Wei, which bored me to death because Wei was a possessive, aggressive sort of guy who unsettled me pretty badly. He’s not the sort of love interest that makes me think “please let him get together with the main character,” mostly because I kept hoping he’d go away and never be heard from again. That, and Xifeng spends a lot of time worrying about her aunt, who was heavily abusive towards her, and while I get that sometimes it’s hard (and completely realistic) for people to leave an abuser behind and stop caring for them when they’re a blood relative, I really didn’t like how forgiving Xifeng ultimately seemed towards her aunt.
At the end of the day, though, I had an amazing time reading this book, and save for a snack break, read it in one sitting. It’s the fairy tale retelling I had no idea I needed until now, and I’m going to be so ready for Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix when it releases later this year!
What did you think of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns? What fairy tale retellings do you recommend? And while we’re at it, which fairy tales would you love to see retold? Clearly this is a very important topic this week.