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

Xifeng lives the life of a peasant with her seamstress aunt, practicing the family trade. Though poor, she has her natural beauty, a place in her world, and the love of Wei, one of the local craftsmen. But the marks on her back betray the cruel beatings Xifeng receives at the hands of her aunt. And yet both she and her overbearing guardian sense Xifeng is destined for greater things. Indeed, her destiny, if she chooses to pursue it, will take her to the royal court, and even a position of power in the continent of Feng Lu. So says the darkness that writhes within her. A darkness born of magic. But to gain the world, Xifeng will have to give her soul to that darkness. She must choose between poverty and power, love and selfish ambition. A home with Wei, or a throne beside the Emperor. And the darkness within will not make the choice easy.

Julie and I used to frequent the same YA blogs, so we’ve been writing acquaintances for some years. I remember a thousand-word flash fiction contest we both entered, where we had to write stories based on a picture prompt. As I recall, Julie’s story was a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin, and it involved a walking tree operated by levers. It was so creative, and so well-told, I knew when I read it Julie was destined to be published. And here we are! Her debut novel. And it’s wonderful to be able to say, “Told you so!” 🙂

Naturally, my expectations for FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS were high, and Julie doesn’t disappoint. She has created a rich fantasy, almost fairy-tale, world based in East Asian culture, with characters that pop out of the pages. Xifeng is an interesting protagonist, because, without giving too much away, she’s not your average heroine. Indeed, throughout the whole book, her motives are torn between self-interest and doing what’s right. As the story goes on, one side gradually dominates the other. But needless to say, she’s not always very likable, and it’s to Julie’s credit that you feel any sympathy for her, or root for her in any way.

There are twists to the story, and characters you need to keep an eye on. Things are not always as they seem. This is the first of a multi-novel series, so the book ends on a cliff-hanger, with loose ends that need to be resolved. And that’s probably as much as I can say without spoiling it for you!

I don’t usually read YA Fantasy [Side bar: Xifeng is 18 at the start of the novel, which is a little old for a YA protagonist. Yet the voice and style of the novel is definitely YA, which goes to show, age isn’t everything for YA.], but I looked forward to this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a couple of s-words, and some gruesome images, so on the whole, I’d rate it a PG-15. But it’s elegantly written, and well deserving of your attention. I could see this being picked up by Studio Ghibli, so if you like their movies (think “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”), you’ll particularly enjoy this book. An easy 5 Goodreads stars.

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