Forest of a Thousand Lanterns: Rise of the Empress, Book 1

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns:  Rise of the Empress, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Vivid dark-fantasy series off to a compelling start.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Fantasy meant to entertain.

Positive Messages

Pursuing your destiny and achieving your dreams requires tremendous sacrifice, and you have to decide if you're willing to pay the price, and whether finally getting what you wanted is worth everything you gave up. Wise friends advise Xifeng that it's better to choose personal happiness over power, but her struggle asks the reader to think about whether and how much we control our own destinies. In a society where women don't have much power or authority and can only "play the game," the only way a woman can survive is by keeping other women down.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Xifeng is an antihero. We can sympathize with her struggles, understand her desire for wealth and power, and appreciate her struggles and heartaches when it comes to making decisions. But she always ultimately gives in to the darkness in order to get what she wants. This is the first book in a planned series, which suggests we'll have to wait to see what Xifeng's ultimate fate is, and how she responds to it. Wei, her hometown boyfriend, is kind, patient, and willing to sacrifice his dream in order to live a normal, happy life with Xifeng -- the very thing she can't bring herself to do. Along the way they meet a wide variety of characters, some good and some bad.


Real-world violence includes abuses like beatings with a cane, whippings, slapping, scratching hard enough to draw blood, and pinching. Murders by stabbing. Fantasy violence includes an attack by demons in which a man is cut in half, magic rituals involving blood sacrifice and eating the victims' hearts, and violent visions with some gore. Blood and pain are described.


A few kisses that aren't described in detail. Sex is implied a few times but not described. Mention that the emperor has concubines and likes pretty girls. Getting rid of pregnancy mentioned once. Bare breasts of someone in a bath mentioned as large.


"S--t" for a bodily function, "whore."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A few mentions of a poppy-based drug that eases pain; in larger doses it causes hallucinations and can kill. Occasional mention of drinking rice wine at banquets. A minor character who's unhappy drinks too much. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the first in a planned dark-fantasy series. Real-world violence includes beating, whipping, slapping, scratching, and murder by stabbing. Fantasy violence includes eating the hearts of people and animals; a fight with knives, crossbows, and swords against fantasy creatures; and some violent visions with mild gore. Pain and blood are described. Sexual content is light, with a few kisses and making out briefly described. Having sex is implied but not described. Strong language includes a few mentions of dog "s--t" and "whore" used a few times. The main character is an antihero who struggles with destiny and whether she can control it, and asks whether sacrificing happiness to reach your destiny is worth the price you have to pay. Readers who enjoy the Far East setting, even though it's a fantasy world, may want to explore real Asian cultures with further reading.

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What's the story?

In FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, Xifeng struggles with life in her small village under her domineering, often cruel aunt Guma. At 18, Xifeng is getting impatient waiting for the destiny her aunt sees in the cards for her. The handsome young Wei has been in love with Xifeng ever since they were little, and has been begging Xifeng to escape Guma's clutches and run away with him for the past several years. Xifeng finally agrees, and she and Wei set out for the Imperial City. Luck is with the two travelers, who fall in with an ambassador on his way to see the emperor and who just might be Xifeng's ticket into the Imperial Palace itself, where she's sure her destiny awaits. But Xifeng learns that fulfilling the destiny she'd always thought was hers may come only if she embraces the dark forces within her soul. Is there a price that's too high to pay for immortal beauty and unimaginable power?

Is it any good?

Author Julie C. Dao's debut is a vivid, richly imagined, and intriguing story with a lot to offer fantasy fans, especially those who like theirs with a generous dose of dark magic on the side. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is populated with a variety of compelling, colorful, and well-developed characters. The unique, refreshing fantasy setting is based on Asian cultures, and while it still feels in many ways like a Western fairy tale, it may spark readers to explore other vast, rich folklores.

Protagonist Xifeng is an antihero, but teens will relate to her longing and impatience while she waits for her destiny to happen. They'll easily recognize the bad choices she makes along the way and anxiously await the next volume to learn what the dark forces have in store for the young, ambitious, small-town girl as she steps into the limelight.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. How much is too much? Does it matter if it's fantasy or real-world violence? Why or why not?

  • Why are so many fantasy stories told in a series? Are you looking forward to the next Rise of the Empress book? How would this book be different if it weren't part of a series?

  • Why do we enjoy main characters who are antiheroes? They don't make the best choices, aren't really all that good, and sometimes aren't even that likable, so what's the appeal? Who are some of your favorite antiheroes?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and Asian stories

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