Monday 3 June 2019

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Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Published: 10th October 2017 | Publisher: Philomel Books | Source: Bought
Julie C. Dao's Website

An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl's quest to become Empress--and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng's majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins--sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.
From Goodreads.

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Trigger Warnings: This book features animal death, problematic physical and emotional abuse, problematic ableism, mention of suicide, someone being whipped, someone being stabbed, murder, and cannibalism.

I've wanted to read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao for such a long time! An East Asian inspired high fantasy prequel retelling of Snow White, giving us the Evil Queen's origin story? It sounded absolutely right up my street! However, I finished with mixed feelings regarding the story overall, and uncomfortable and angry over a number of problematic elements.

Had I not known this was an origin story for the Evil Queen, I think I might have enjoyed it more. Because of what I've read in the past, when it comes to villain origin stories, I expect either a really emotional, heartbreaking story that is the cause of the villain becoming villainous, or a really dark story, where the villain is naturally cruel. Forest of a Thousand Teeth is kind of neither? Xifeng is abused emotionally and physically by her aunt, Guma, at the very start of the story (which I will come back to later), and everything she does over the course of the story is influenced by what Guma has drilled into her about her fate and who she must be, and while this is terrible, it's actually only a small part of the story overall, and things quickly move on, so it's horrible, but it doesn't have quite the emotional impact. And as for being very dark... Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has it's moments, but they're just that - moments. In the great scheme of things, not a huge deal actually happens for a lot of the book. She's travelling, then she's a lady-in-waiting at the palace, and made to do awful things by Lady Sun, one of the Emperor's favoured concubines, who treats her awfully. Xifeng spends her time doing a lot of thinking and planning, but in regards to action or significant events, they're few and far between. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's a quieter high fantasy story, and one I think a lot of people will enjoy (and going by the reviews, have enjoyed), I just think I was expecting more, so feel disappointed. And unfortunately, I didn't really connect with the characters, and so I didn't really care much? I also don't think it really works as a stand alone; while there is a companion novel, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, it's told from the perspective of the Snow White character, Princess Jade, and I feel like maybe Forest of a Thousand Lanterns should have been longer, in order to see the darkness that we witness at the end of the book play out a bit.

There were aspects of the story I did like, though. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is actually a fairly feminist story. Xifeng is selfish, but it's a selfishness that comes from partly having her destiny hammered into her with abuse by Guma, and part the world they live in. Xifeng longs to be seen as more than just her beauty, and yet she is constantly told that her beauty is all that she has going for her, so it's a tool for her to use to get what she wants. She has learnt to both dislike the attention her looks get her, but also that it's her ticket to something more. And something more is not only her destiny, but also something she wants. This isn't a world that treats women born into poverty well, nor a world where women have much power, compared with men. There aren't many choices, so why shouldn't she try for something for herself? Why shouldn't she use her beauty to get herself into a position of power?

This is wonderfully addressed in her relationship with Wei, Xifeng's lover. Wei dreams of escaping the town they live in, getting married, her staying at home looking after babies, while he works and keeps her. He doesn't understand why this isn't enough for Xifeng; why does she want more? What more could she want? We, the readers, know she wants to become Empress - and, ergo, marry another man - but Wei doesn't. So as far as he's concerned, she doesn't want to stay at home, raising babies and looking after their home, she wants a job. He takes it as a personal insult that she wants more, that she is ambitious and has drive, as if he and the life he wants isn't enough for her. His fury and disbelief that she is refusing this life is something to behold. But Xifeng doesn't want to be controlled.

'"Tell me, what more can I do to deserve you?" He yanked his arm from her reach. "Maybe you're too busy missing your Guma's beatings to see what's in front of you, so I'll tell you. I'm a good man, Xifeng. I let you have your own way and speak your mind . . ."
"You think I don't know that? That I'm so blind and stupid?"
"Yes, I do!" he shouted, his face bright red. "I offer you the world . . ."
"Yes, the world as
you see it!"
"I saved you from that evil woman!"
"Only to trap me yourself." She watched him turn away and run a trembling hand over his head. "I was Guma's, and now you want me to be yours. I have my own soul and my own destiny, and I'm tired of belonging to someone else."'

The fact that she wants more for herself - wants her own life, her own dreams, her own ambitions - leads to Wei calling her '"unnatural."' (p126). It's subtle, but Forest of a Thousand Lanterns echos what I've read in other female villain origin stories; if a woman wants to break free of the box men put her in - if they want more, if they have ambition, if they endeavour to be greater than who men decide they are - they're wrong, they're unnatural, they're bad. A woman who strives for her own agency is automatically a villian, and/or the only way for a woman to take ownership of her own agency is through villainous acts.

But then we come to the aspects of the book I found to be problematic. Firstly, ableism. One of the characters Xifeng meets and becomes friends with over the course of the story is Shiro, the ambassador for the king of Kamatsu, who has dwarfism. Xifeng describes him as a "dwarf", which in and of itself isn't necessarily ableism; I've asked, and it's a case of some people with dwarfism find it offensive, but others don't. However, what really bothers me is how Dao has Xifeng think of him in her narration. Obviously, it's clunky writing to constantly repeat a character's name - "Shiro said," "Shiro shrugged," "Shiro laughed." But there are other options Dao could have used - "the ambassador, for example, or even "he," But on occassion, when Shiro speaks or does something, Shiro is referred to as "the dwarf." It might not sound like a huge deal, but Dao is reducing Shrio to his disability each time Xifeng thinks this. When you know someone's name, you wouldn't then think, "the Asian" or "the lesbian," because people are more than their marginalisations. And Shiro is more than his disability. It's just not ok.

And then there's discussion of how Shiro's wife - who was a daughter of the Kamatsu's king, anb became Shiro's wife through a marriage arranged by the king and Shiro's father, the king's chief adviser - died by suicide because she couldn't bear to be married to him. I know that's a character's ableism, but it made me really uncomfortable. Suicide is such a serious subject, and I can understand how being forced into an unwanted marriage might affect someone, and they may end up with depression, especially in a world where women are kind of considered to belong to the men in their family (fathers, husbands), and I don't doubt such marriages could lead to someone thinking that suicide is the only way out. But for the sole reason given for her dying by suicide is that her husband is disabled? For this to be just a conversation, the only time this woman is mentioned, and it's to say she couldn't bear the shame of being married to someone with dwarfism... I feel it was unnecessary, and really problematic. It just really doesn't sit right with me. It's one small mention in a longer conversation, but I just found it really, really shocking. There are other ways of showing the ableism Shiro would have experienced, but this just seemed too far.

And then he says that, "Some of us must rely on friends to see the best within us." (p115) And while I get that's what Shiro might think in the context of his world and his experiences, it still implies that he's somehow lesser for being disabled, for having dwarfism; that his friends see the good in him despite his disability. It's less, "It's what inside that counts," and more implies his disability is a problem, and that people have to see past that, to Shrio the person, to treat him well. And it's not challenged. Xifeng does say he deserves better, but she doesn't contradict the idea that his disability is an issue. I just don't like it. I honestly believe that Dao didn't intend to be ableist, and it just wasn't thought through well enough, but that doesn't excuse it. This should have been picked up. They're tiny things in the overall story, but it matters. Disabled people matter.

I also want to touch on the abuse Xifeng experiences at the hands of Guma. As I said earlier, it's a small part of the book in regards to what we see on page - literally only 38 pages at the beginning. But Xifeng is heavily influenced by what Guma thought, what she taught her, what she wanted for her, what she expects of her. And I don't want to spoil things, but I do want to mention that Xifeng discovers that there's a reason Guma treated her the way she did, and that this was her showing her love. No. This is completely not ok. This is such a harmful idea. There is no excuse for abuse, there is no-way abusing someone is showing love. This is incredibly problematic. Can you just imagine a person who has been abused reading this and them reading someone experiencing what they have, and being told it was out of love? This is just a major red flag, and that no-one seems to have questioned it, that it made it's way through to the final copy. Well, of course it did, because - again, no spoilers - the discovery and everything it comes with is actually a major plot point. But in that case, there shouldn't have been any abuse in this story at all. It's actually just horrific that this is part of this story, and really inexcusable.

So, the book overall wasn't my cup of tea, and yes, there were elements to the story I liked, but due to it's problematic issues, this isn't a book I can recommend in good conscience.

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What do you expect from villain origin stories? What are your favourite villain origin stories? Are there any fairy tale villain origin stories you would like to read? Let me know in the comments!

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