Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a retelling of Snow White set in a Chinese-inspired world, told from the point of view of the evil queen.
I’ve never really liked villain origin stories. Not because I don’t like the idea – all my faves are terrible, I love villains – but because I never like the execution. I didn’t like The Young Elites, Heartless was forgettable, and I had mixed feelings on The Bone Witch.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is my favorite villain origin story.
I loved the main character. Xifeng is clever, confident and has agency, and every villain protagonist should be like that. I’m not interested in “evil because of circumstances” stories, I want villains to have a goal. She has one, and she also has her creepy moments.
I mean, she’s literally eating the raw hearts of her victims for dark magic. (Yes, at first they’re animals. At first.)
I had only two small problems with the execution of this part: I would have liked Xifeng to have even more agency, and the other is not specifically a problem with this book – more with the trend.
I don’t know why the only books with a clever, confident, ambitious woman as the main character are villain origin stories. These traits are not inherently evil, but in female characters they are almost always framed that way. I’d like to read more stories about characters like that who are more morally gray than evil.
One other thing I want to point out, which wasn’t a flaw for me but may bother some other readers: expect girl-on-girl hate. A lot of it. Most of the book is set in the “city of women” at court, and it’s a really competitive place.
Despite this, I loved every character in the court, even the terrible, manipulative ones.
I loved the worldbuilding. Feng Lu was well-developed, and it had its own traditions and folklore. It’s a country on the brink of war, a country where the real often meets the unreal – there are ancient forests full of magical creatures and foreign politics, there are dark demons and court intrigue. The descriptions were vivid and colorful, the atmosphere perfect.
While I really liked this book, I also have to say it was flawed – it’s still clearly a debut, and sometimes the writing didn’t flow as well as it should have. There were some infodumps through dialogue, and the pacing wasn’t perfect. I like slow books, and this is one of them, but I’m not sure the time jumps in the ending were a good idea.
Another thing I could have done without was the romance. I hate the “one-dimensional protective (…controlling) best friend” trope, and when Wei wasn’t in the book anymore – him and Xifeng spend most of the book apart after the beginning – I started liking the book a lot more. I think Wei was mostly unnecessary and just really, really boring.
I also don’t like the implications of this plotline – one of the very few characters in YA who isn’t interested in romance (she thinks she would be unhappy not pursuing her ambitions just because of a relationship) becomes evil? I don’t like that, but it’s not exactly the book’s fault.
My rating: ★★★★¼
Have you read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns?