Early Review: “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns”


Alexandria Ang

The story of “Forest of A Thousand Lanterns” is captured on its cover.

Asian culture is scarcely seen in Young Adult literature, which is why Julie C. Dao’s debut novel Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (FOTL) was highly promoted and praised early in its release. In fact, FOTL was one of Penguin Random House’s five featured books apart of their “Game Changers” campaign for their teen imprint, Penguin Teen. The Game Changers campaign is the biggest fall campaign for Penguin Teen, and Julie C. Dao earned her place as the only debut YA author among established bestsellers such as Marie Lu and Stephanie Perkins.

On October 10th, the release of FOTL was greeted with a grand celebration in Penguin’s offices in New York, and many book bloggers took to Twitter, making the hashtag #ForestofaThousandLanterns trend worldwide.

The book earned early fame and for good reason. FOTL is an East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen. Dao says she wanted to take the classic Eurocentric tales she was told when she was a kid and explore these stories with an all-Asian cast. It takes in Feng Lu, a fictional kingdom inspired by Imperial China. All her life, the main character Xifeng has been told that she’s destined for greatness and will be the next Empress of Feng Lu. However, in order to achieve this greatness and become who she is meant to be, she must embrace a dark and sinister force inside her.

“A spell-binding story with a poetic writing style, FOTL is one of the best books I’ve read this year.”

There’s nothing worse than reading a book with an uninteresting, two-dimensional character. On the contrary, Xifeng is a compelling and unpredictable character. Because she is an anti-heroine, I simultaneously hated and loved her. On the one hand, I was rooting for her, because she was so tenacious and worked hard to reach her goal, even though the odds were against here. However, because she had this darkness inside of her, she often made malicious and spiteful decisions. The side characters were just as intriguing as the main characters.

The story was filled with complex world-building and filled with cultural mythology. What set this book apart from the many Young Adult fantasy books in the publishing industry was definitely the setting. How often do we read fiction books that are set in Imperial East Asia? It was refreshing and nice to see such diverse culture represented on the pages of this book.

FOTL is not a light and fluffy read. It’s a book that to pick up for its elaborate storytelling and for its multifaceted characters. This book is a game changer.


Alexandria Ang, The Science Survey: “A lot of authors spend time planning what they want to include in their book before they start writing. Was there anything you knew you wanted to include in A Forest of A Thousand Lanterns before you even got into actually writing the book?”

Julie C. Dao: “I knew I wanted it to be a reimagining of Snow White that was completely original and like nothing I had seen before in YA, but still held on to elements of the old fairy tale. So there had to be a magic mirror, an apple, a stepmother/stepdaughter dynamic… even if I twisted these concepts to fit my own purposes! I had to find ways to make the reader still recognize the inspiration behind the story, to ground them in the fairy tale feel, but at the same time make the elements my own, so FOTL would feel fresh and new.”

Ang: “What’s more important to you when it comes to writing fantasy, the plot or the characters? Is there another attribute of writing you think aspiring fantasy writers should focus on?”

Dao: “Both plot and characters are important, of course, but I think when it comes fantasy, world-building is right up there on the list as well. The world needs to feel real to the reader, even if it has fantastical and magical elements. There need to be laws, rules, and a shared history between the lands of a fantasy world, just as there are in the real world. As a big fantasy reader myself, I love it when I feel like the world of the book is a place I can go.”

Ang: “Let’s talk about diversity! Can you recommend some of your favorite fantasy books written by Asian authors/include Asian characters.”

Dao: “I read “Ash”by Malinda Lo many years ago and loved her compelling F/F version of Cinderella. The prequel, “Huntress”, is another fantastic read. I picked up “Serpentine”by Cindy Pon at a book festival last year, and it was my gateway to everything Cindy has ever written. It’s a gorgeous fantasy rooted in Chinese mythology with a brilliant female friendship at its core. Recently, I bought the Dragon King Chronicles trilogy by Ellen Oh, which is set in a fantasy world inspired by Korea and starts off with “Prophecy”, and I cannot wait to read it!”

Ang: “Congrats on the publication of your debut novel! I know it’s probably too soon to ask, but your readers are dying with anticipation. What are your plans for book two in the Rise of the Empress series? Any mythical creatures you couldn’t put into book one but have saved for the sequel?”

Dao: “Thank you so much! This is so kind! I’ve always intended for the Rise of the Empress series to be a duology, and for FOTL and Book 2 to be two halves of the same story, with two different women telling it. So you’ll see a brand-new main character narrating Book 2. The format is also quite different, and you’ll get to visit different lands throughout Feng Lu. There is also more magic and mythology, and folktales play a crucial part in the plot. I can’t wait to share it with you!”