Fairy tale retellings have become a huge trend lately, especially in YA. A good retelling can be tricky to pull off. It should be unique enough that the fairy tale isn’t just being rehashed, yet still grounded enough that the essence of the source material shines through. I’ve read quite a few retellings, and it’s been a hit or miss experience. However, the ones I’ve enjoyed the most focus on fairy tale characters’ stories that haven’t been told. The 2014 movie Maleficent did a great job of that, exploring the famous witch’s motivations and turned her into someone relatable and dynamic, rather than just an evil sorceress who’s evil for no reason.
Another great look at an underexplored character is Julie C. Dao’s YA novel Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. It is the untold story of the evil queen from Snow White, set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy realm. The main character, Xifeng, starts off as a young girl who is torn between achieving the greatness she’s been told she will achieve, and living a happy life free of her abusive aunt. Xifeng is not perfect. She makes mistakes, hurts the people she loves, and has a hard time deciding what it is that she really wants. And, even though she’s supposed to become the evil queen, she’s still likable, which is a great achievement on Dao’s part. We know she’s going to turn evil, but the journey leaves us on our toes.
Actually, knowing Xifeng’s ultimate fate is what made the book so enjoyable for me. I’ve seen certain fandoms insisting that if you like certain characters who do bad things, then you’re a bad person. Whatever happened to liking a villain because they are a villain? That is what made Xifeng such a great character in my eyes. Throughout her journey, she does horrible things. Perhaps the most horrible things a person could do, in fact. Yet I found myself wanting her to do them, and cackling to myself when she did. Would I be entertained if someone did those things in real life? Of course not! But Xifeng is the evil queen-to be, and she can’t get there without quite literally getting her hands dirty. Often, in fairy tales, the girl who possesses the most beauty is the most pure and kind, and things often happen to her rather than her having an active role in her fate. Not Xifeng. She does what she must to retain her beauty and claw her way to the Emperor’s favor. A female protagonist who isn’t always nice, and does whatever it takes to get what she wants is extremely refreshing, and left me wanting more of Xifeng.
Luckily, there will be more of Xifeng! Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the first book in the Rise of the Empress series. This first book is unique in that it gives us an original story. The evil queen doesn’t have an official backstory, which makes it easy for the author to run wild. The second book will supposedly focus on the stepdaughter, but I have every confidence in Dao’s storytelling ability to keep this story fresh and exciting.