2017’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the first volume in Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress series.
Xifeng has been raised from birth to marry Emperor Jun. It is a lofty ambition (very much so given that Xifeng is a poor orphan) but it is not entirely unreasonable. Xifeng’s abusive aunt Guma claims to possess magical powers; she insists that one day Xifeng will be great and powerful. Also, Xifeng is an unparalleled beauty, which should smooth her rise to empress .
Tired of Guma’s beatings, Xifeng flees with Wei, a young soldier who is utterly besotted with Xifeng. Alas for Wei, she is not besotted with Wei. Xifeng has a plan. A plan that involves the emperor.
The road to the imperial city is beset with assassins, bandits, demons, and other dangers. Many of Xifeng’s companions die, but she herself arrives alive and untouched. It is as though some higher power watches over Xifeng, preserving her for some great purpose.
Xifeng soon joins the ranks of Imperial concubines, an important first step towards true power. But she soon discovers that as a newcomer she is the least within the harem. The harem itself is a dangerous place, rife with vicious politics, as each woman competes to be Jun’s favourite. Xifeng may or may not be the most beautiful, but she definitely is the most ignorant. That is a serious handicap.
Still, Xifeng has her allies. Kang the eunuch has taken a shine to her, as has the Empress Lihua. Jun himself is somewhat fond of Xifeng, although his favourite remains the poisonous Lady Sun. But Xifeng’s greatest supporter is unseen: a dark and malevolent god who plans to reshape the world.
Xifeng feels mild regret that she cannot return Wei’s love. She hates the terrible visions her divine patron shows her. She commits murder and then more murders, which makes her unhappy. But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
This happens in real life; this happens in books. Naïve newcomer latches onto the first friendly person they meet, even though they know that others may lie and deceive … and that they are ill-prepared to sort truth from lies. In the real world, this often ends unhappily. In books, this often works out. The plot demands it, I suppose.
When Xifeng started eating people’s hearts, I wondered if her quest for power had led her astray. I mean, seeking power motivates so many plots that it can’t be wrong … can it? Is it just a coincidence that a court filled with the power-hungry would be filled with malevolent concubines, scheming eunuchs, and murderous Emperors? Perhaps not.
This is the biography of a future evil empress, an empress (to borrow from JRRT)
beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
If you don’t like evil empresses, you might want to avoid this book. Dao does, however, stay on the knife edge between showing us an unsympathetic character and presenting Xifeng’s actions as reasonable, at least from her POV. If that sounds interesting, you might like this novel. It’s well-written and well-paced.