Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, the first in the Rise of the Empress series, is Snow White retold as the rise of the Wicked Queen—or, rather, the Empress—to the throne of Feng Lu. It’s a world of Dragon Lords, scheming courtiers, and one young woman determined to rule it all.
Xifeng starts out a troubled young woman abused by her aunt who promises her a great destiny. Xifeng’s aunt, Guma, is a sorceress and a seamstress, sewing silks by day and reading the cards for Xifeng by night. It’s blood magic, as all the magic of their family is.
But Xifeng longs for the affection of a mother, hers having died in childbirth, even though Guma tells her love is a weakness. When Xifeng travels to the capital and gains entry to the palace, she finds a mother figure in Empress Lihua, who, while she has three sons, longs more than anything for a daughter.
This is a villain origin story, but I still found myself rooting for Xifeng to succeed in her goals while not giving into the darkness within herself. Xifeng is determined, bold, and cunning. She wars within herself between being ruthless and being kind. And though ruthlessness eventually wins out, it’s not without cost.
The characters in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns are all richly realized. The party of ambassadors from Kamatsu Xifeng and Wei meet on the road. Wei, Xifeng’s childhood friend and love. Akira the physician, who falls in love with ambassador Shiro, who is also a dwarf.
Then there’s the people at court. Lady Sun, who I can’t feel sorry for, despite her fate. Kang, the eunuch who befriends Xifeng despite Lady Sun’s dislike of her. And Emperor Jun, whom I didn’t find as charismatic as Xifeng did; to me, he reeked of male entitlement—though that may have been the point.
I enjoyed Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, despite knowing how it must end (fairytale retelling, remember?) because I didn’t know how it would get there. And the book still surprised me with the very last scene. I’ll be picking up the next Rise of the Empress book.