Dear fantasy fiction fans,
I forget how much I like Asian-inspired fantasy with its richness and color that amaze my senses and creates a feeling of wonder. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao captured me as I raced to find out what happens next and reveled in the beauty of Feng Nu along the way — from the coastal town where Xifeng grew up to the forest surrounding the Emperor’s city. Xifeng was destined to rule beside the emperor – the cards showed it, so it must be. She was raised to be able to find her way in that world, but the mental health of her entire family is questioned – is her family magical or do they have mental health issues? This we never are completely sure of even at the book’s conclusion.
At first, you think that Xifeng is the hero of the story but towards the middle of the book, you begin to look at her a different way. That is because she is an antihero, one that is beyond redemption, and a puppet for the Snake God to feed his need for power. Whatever good she has in her is quickly squashed when she decides on a path from which there is no turning back. Some reviewers likened her to the evil witch in Snow White but I would argue that she is is more like Eve, from the Bible, as she has the same basic fight as being tempted by the snake. She is beautiful and thinks that is everything but she is also cunning and smart. She has moments of good as seen in Wei’s love, so you root for her, but in the end when Wei leaves her, you know that means the good in her is gone. No more is the girl with the destiny fighting to maintain her humanity – the goodness of spirit. She has given in to the Snake God. The reader shares Wei’s vision of her until he, like us, has to face the fact that she is not a heroine at all. The real heroine of the story is but a toddler at the end of the book and I look forward to seeing her grow into the being of goodness she was destined to be.
A story that is routed in a plot that is as old as time with an Asian spin, we fear for the soul of Xifeng and want her to defeat the Snake God. To renounce him, as her mother supposedly did and live the life of goodness we know she can. The way Dao tells the story, you never want to give up on Xifeng, even when, like Wei, you know there is no going back. The fact that Dao can keep us hoping and believing in the goodness of Xifeng, speaks to her ability to tell a complex story that at times blurs the line between good and evil. The story is told in such a way that we root for the characters all the while being able to enjoy the beauty of the forest and smell the intoxicating scent of the garden’s flowers. The plot is as rich with description as it is a compelling story.
It’s not often that I wake in the middle of night and can’t get back to sleep because I am wondering how a book turns out but Dao’s book had that effect on me. The plot has a good combination of exposition and action, it pulls you along at a fast pace but that’s fine because you just can’t get enough. The reader is never bogged down by superfluous description, instead enjoying the beauty of the mystical world of Feng Nu – a sort of Shangri-La that is in danger, much as the garden of Eden was in danger.
Dao creates for us an Asian-inspired garden of eden, and we yearn for the goodness to come and boot the snake out.
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