Review of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

I’ve read several fairy tale retellings this year. I’m a big fan of fairy tales and I seriously cannot get enough of these stories.

This East Asian inspired Evil Queen retelling is a unique take on an old tale.

The description of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns had me itching to read it, and I had my hopes up high. Unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations, though I did end up enjoying it.

Xifeng was raised by her abusive/manipulative aunt, Guma, with the belief that she is destined to become Empress. Guma raises her to be strong and doesn’t hold back in the pain and suffering she inflicts. Xifeng is raised believing her greatest asset is her beauty, and that she is entitled to her fate as Empress.

She is vain, selfish, and jealous.

Sounds interesting, right!? The perfect premise for an epic origin story of an iconic villain.

Unfortunately, I did not find it living up to my expectations.

It was soooo sloooooooooow.

Like seriously the slowest burn I’ve read all year.

The first 70% of the book was uneventful. The micro-events that do occur feel irrelevant most of the time, and the conflicts that occur felt insubstantial. I found the book progressing because time is linear and not for any other reason.

This was a book where I truly felt like a reader, an outsider looking in. Where some books have the ability to suck you in and make you forget you’re reading a book, I couldn’t truly immerse myself into this one, probably because I couldn’t connect with any of the characters.

Knowing it is the origin story of the Evil Queen, I knew Xifeng could only be relatable to a point. I wouldn’t say I ever truly liked her (she is so freaking selfish), I at least understood why she was making each of the choices that ultimately led her to the position of Empress.  

Throughout the story, Xifeng is unrelentingly selfish and shows very little remorse over her actions. Her inner dialogue often will “weigh” the options, if only for a moment, showing she has some sort of moral compass.

This is an important aspect of her overall character: she does have a sense of right and wrong, and consciously chooses poorly.

Again, understandable but not necessarily relatable.

Xifeng has two love interests, but both of them bored me. Neither relationship seemed real. I never felt a spark between Wei and Xifeng, and the Emperor is really nothing more than a stepping stone.

With so much emphasis on the romances, I was especially disappointed that they both fell flat. I wish there was more passion from at least one of them.

I found myself most drawn to Lihua. As the descendent of the Dragon Lords but trapped in an unhappy marriage, Lihua was often pushed to the sidelines while the Emperor and his concubines capture the focus of those around her.

I wanted MORE of Lihua.

The Emporer only became the ruler because he married Lihua, yet he got all the power and glory. So messed up!!

As the tension builds up between Lihua and Xifeng, I found myself more and more invested in the story, rooting for Lihua, but knowing she could never win.

As Xifeng moves into the role of Empress, her jealousy of Jade grows. Now that all the backstory has been laid out, I’m hoping the sequel will jump right in to the friction between the step mother and step daughter.

Although I enjoyed the book overall, I found it boring until Lihua officially became Xifeng’s primary opponent.

I plan on reading the sequel, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, with hopes that the momentum of the story will continue escalating instead of fizzling out.


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