Title: Forest of a thousand lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Review: The opening to Forest of a thousand lanterns was brilliant, anything with an Oriental theme is already vert attractive to me as I am slightly obsessed with all things Orient. We meet Xifeng who lives with her aunt Guma, they are needle workers who are quite poor but get by, Xifeng resents her life in the small village but her only happiness there is Wei; her lover. Guma has raised Xifeng like a higher class lady preparing her for a better life should she come across one and severely disapproves of Wei even beating Xifeng for sneaking off to see him. Xifeng is a descendant of the Hou House, meaning magic lies within her blood. After Guma reads her date in the card Xifeng decides to leave with Wei but she knows she will never be free of her aunt’s influence. As they head to the Imperial Palace the pair come across many others travelling in the same direction and Xifeng is grateful for the company. We learn that Guma taught Xifeng types of magic many think are forgotten. While she is happy to be free she is struggles with Guma’s teachings especially those about love.
As we approach the 1/4 mark in the novel the group travel towards the Imperial Palace, after making a stop at a trading post strange things begin to happen that really screw Xifeng. She doesn’t have time to dwell on it as they have to journey through The Great Forest. So far I was so engrossed in this novel and the characters I just couldn’t put it down. The group aren’t in the Forest long before they encounter the tengaru; the demon protectors of the Forest. After a small but bloody battle they are taken before the Queen of the tengaru where they are protected and the Queen tells them that everything that is happening is to do with Xifeng. While Xifeng has dreamed visions of death it still frightens her when she witnesses it first-hand. During the fight Shiro is injured and the wound quickly become infected, upon leaving the Forest they quickly enter the outskirts of the Imperial City. Here they meet Akira who heals Shiro but they have to delay their journey by several days. This gives Xifeng time to contemplate what the tengaru Queen told her, she knows two destinies lie before her one will lead to salvation the other to ruin. She now has to decide which path to take while fighting the darkness within herself.
As we cross the 1/4 mark in the novel we see Xifeng contemplate what life would be like within the Imperial court. She gains plenty of insight from Akira, Shiro and Hideki and she learns that she may have to leave Wei behind as the women who work for the Empress aren’t allowed lovers. She feels that desire living Wei it may be better for her to travel her path and Wei his desperately although Shiro does leave her with some burning questions. Despite ask this she already has more than one plan to gain access to the Palace should her plan involving Wei fail. This does make the reader question whether meeting the soldiers and the tengaru was coincidence or a carefully laid out plot.
As we approach the halfway mark in the novel Xifeng gets her opportunity to enter the palace from the crown Prince but in accepting his offer she seemingly forfeits Wei. Upon her arrival she has to prove herself to Master Yu, the chef eunuch who protects the women who belong to the Emperor before she is presented to Empress. While she is happy to be at the Palace Wei`s absence hurts her and although she promised to find a way for them to be together I don’t whether she will be able to as fate has promised her to another. Xifeng seeks to exploit the Empress` desire for a daughter to gain position within the court but it brings to the surface her own longing for a loving mother, but the presence inside her makes her consider that the Empress may be the prophesied fool that Guma spoke of. We are beginning to see the two halves of Xifeng more clearly there is the lost, lonely girl just seeking to bring somewhere and be loved in direct contrast to the cruel, callous side of her that longs for blood. Xifeng is made a servant of Lady Sun who is one of the Emperor’s two favoured concubines and she soon learns that court life is one huge game with everyone looking out for only themselves. She also forms an unlikely alliance with Lady Sun whether this is to be kept from the Emperor’s wandering eyes or another reason is yet to be seen, all I can say is neither woman likes the other as they live in a world where women must fight for everything they have yet it makes sense a few would band together. After the first few weeks as a glorified maid servant Xifeng is struggling to hold her temper when she uncovers a hidden hot spring under the Palace in a passageway people don’t use. She plans on using it as a sanctuary where she might be able to harness her visions. All the while the voice inside her which sounds suspiciously like Guma is instructing her to be ever watchful for the fool. This part of Xifeng’s journey is one of political intrigue and deception which I am absolutely loving it.
As we cross into the second half of the novel Xifeng makes an enemy of Lady Sun when she talks to the Emperor after this she vows to find a way to get rid of Lady Sun. Xifeng comes up with a plan of making Lady Sun look bad and have people keep an eye on her without implicating herself. Over the few months she has been at the Palace Xifeng has gained a measure of recognition with both the Empress and the Crown Prince even going as far to plot against the favoured concubine of the Emperor. I was very wary of Kang while he is friendly towards Xifeng I have always felt that he has his own agenda. Xifeng is adamant that Lady Sun is the Fool but I have a feeling that it may be someone very unexpected like Kang. We see Xifeng implement her plan without using the violence or darkness that lies within her, she causes cracks in the Emperor’s and Lady Sun’s relationship by manipulating the Prince into believing that Lady Sun wishes his mother dead. A side story to the main one is the love between Xifeng and Wei, Kang has in secret arranged for them the night after the Moon festival which is forbidden and I have a feeling that Kang may double cross her but I could be completely wrong.
As we approach the 3/4 mark in the novel we see Xifeng’s first true act of darkness that is paired with stunning twist that it literally took my breath away. After seeing Xifeng claim what is hers I was worried about the repercussions and who the finger of blame would be pointed at. With only 80 pages left in the novel I couldn’t wait to see how Dao would wrap up this dark and beautiful story. Eventually Xifeng captures the eye of the Emperor and the Empress talks with her in order to say goodbye to her friend before she is taken to her husband’s bed. This hurts Xifeng as she is losing her only true mother figure but she has succeeded in moving one step closer to her ultimate goal. I like the fact Xifeng talks to the Emperor as an equal and even makes strategic alliances along the way. So as we move into the final section of the novel I was spell bound and couldn’t wait to see what would happen to the ambitious Xifeng next.
As we cross into the final section of the novel we see Xifeng learn the truth of what she is and she is faced with a choice and her choice will change the face of the world as everyone knows it. With every passing day Xifeng power grows as does her influence within the palace especially with the Empress not expected the survive the birth of her fourth child which would make Xifeng the prime candidate for the new Empress. In the final pages of this novel were beautiful, haunting and dark and there isn’t much more I can say other than everyone needs to read this as soon as they can.
Overall, I found Forest of a Thousand Lanterns to be superb especially for a debut novel. While the initial build up was a little slow it wasn’t lacking in tension or suspense. Following Xifeng on her journey for power and influence and seeing the sacrifices she makes in this quest had me utterly hooked and I hope Dao continues this into a series very soon. I highly recommend this book and urge everyone to read it.
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