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Author Julie C. Dao on her new Asian fairy tale novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

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Oct 10, 2017

Fantasy in any form is on fire these days, from the fervor of HBO's Game of Thrones, to long-running TV series like Grimm and Once Upon A Time, to the epic comic book stories of Fables and Elfquest.

Adding to that canon is first-time author Julie C. Dao, who has composed a beautiful, lush, dark fantasy YA novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, which reimagines the Snow White/Evil Queen legend, tinged with an exotic East Asian flair.

The book's ambitious young heroine, Xifeng, must embrace the darkness within to achieve her destiny to eventually become Empress, embarking on a perilous path strewn with sorcery, secrets, and great sacrifice.

Dao's breezy-yet-confident prose is dipped in jasmine waters and scented with plum blossoms, breathing freely with a haunting Brothers Grimm severity and the magical mystery of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Here's the official synopsis:

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.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 10 from Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin/Random House.

SYFY WIRE connected with Dao to discuss this dark, wonder-filled world she's dabbled in, the inspirations and research involved in writing her breakout novel, playing Solitaire as a teen, creating elaborate kingdoms, and what to expect as the engaging new fantasy series progresses.

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How did you conceive of the fairy tale saga in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns?

Julie C. Dao: The idea for FOTL came when I was 13 years old. I was playing a version of Solitaire that had amazing art on each of the cards: these grim, gorgeous queens who looked like they wanted to kill each other! I began imagining their stories and wove this idea into my love of fairy tales and folklore. The tale of Snow White popped into my head: a stepmother and stepdaughter battling each other for control of the throne. I didn’t feel ready to write it for years, but in 2015, I decided to finally sit down and explore the concept with an all-Asian cast of characters. And the rest was history!

What can readers young and old expect from this mystical Asian-inspired story?

I combined multiple elements that shaped me as a person and a writer, so you can expect subtle nods to the classic Snow White fairy tale, inspiration from folktales I grew up reading or hearing from my parents, powerful female characters, and a complex antiheroine whose character arc is dark, brutal, and bloody – a tribute to the Grimms’ stories I read when I was younger.

How extensive was your research process for the novel?

The central kingdom of Book 1 is inspired by Imperial China, so I spent weeks researching everything I could about that country and era: food, clothing, how the Emperor’s army worked, what roles servants played in the palace, and much more. My book is a fantasy, not historical fiction, but I wanted to ground the story and make it feel authentic.

I also read quite a few Asian folktales and fables. It was interesting to see so many different variants of each tale in China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries around East and Southeast Asia. It was a nice reminder that although each culture is distinct and unique, they aren’t isolated, so storytelling frequently was shared across different lands.

Being a first-time author, what were some of the unexpected obstacles and eventual rewards of writing the book?

I knew I had my work cut out for me with a character whose arc spirals downward. My biggest concern was making Xifeng someone to root for, even as she makes all the wrong choices and succumbs to her ambition for power. She had to be sympathetic in some capacity, and I spent a lot of time asking myself how to make her so. It has been rewarding to hear how many readers have rooted for Xifeng to win, even though they knew her methods of acquiring her ambitions were morally shady.

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How much did the classic Grimm fairy tales and the darker fables of Hans Christian Andersen play into the tone, style, and structure?

Dark fairy tales were a huge inspiration for FOTL. The endings weren’t always happy and the characters not all good, which intrigued me because it feels more realistic than the typical Disney take. There were elements of the old and original Snow White story I knew I wanted to keep, because I think it’s important to help the reader get their bearings in a fairy tale retelling. I kept the main conflict between the queen and her stepdaughter, the queen’s bloodthirstiness, and the infamous apple, but I gave each element an original twist of my own to make it fresh. There is also a poisoned hair comb in the Grimms’ Snow White that you may see in Book 2.

What other inspirations (books, comics, movies, anime) did you infuse into the story?

Another big source of inspiration for Forest was the Silk Road Ensemble, a talented and diverse musical group led by the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The ensemble features instruments from countries along the historic Silk Road, a vast trade route stretching across Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, which inspired my fictional world of Feng Lu. For the central kingdom of Book 1, I chose an Imperial Chinese-inspired land to pay tribute to the epic costume dramas my mom loved to watch when I was growing up! I liked the idea of having the power struggles of the Imperial Court serve as the backdrop for FOTL.

How do you relate to Xifeng, the cunning main heroine of the book, and what aspects of her personality and drive come from personal experiences?

I was surprised to find how easy it was to write someone so completely morally different from me. I personally often run over conversations in my head, worrying about offending others or hurting their feelings without meaning to, while Xifeng will literally kill anyone who stands in her way! I think the key to this ease was that Xifeng *is* a part of me in some ways: I share her drive, her determination, and her steadfast ambition, so I understood her and connected to her on a basic level. I don’t let anyone stand in the way of my personal goals, and I don’t allow anyone to tell me I can’t do something anymore.

Was it difficult balancing the book's content for a YA readership, but also allowing for a deeper read for adult crossover audiences?

It really wasn’t. I was once a voracious teenaged reader myself, and the stories that moved me most, that affected me and stayed in my mind, were the ones that did not shy away from tough topics. I think it does young readers no justice to tiptoe around issues, to sugar-coat things and soften stories for them. They are smart, sharp, astute book lovers, and I knew that if I was going to promise them a villain to both terrify and enthrall them – a dark antiheroine who spirals all the way down – I had to go all the way in, no apologies. I’ve often been disappointed, as a reader, to be promised an antihero and realize that the character is simply a nice person who’s misunderstood. If I’m going to write a spin on a classic villainess – especially one who commands her huntsman to bring her people’s hearts to eat – I want to take her as far as she’ll go and not shy away from all the terrible choices she must make.

What dangers and wonders can we anticipate in the next volume of this fantasy series?

You will see a LOT more inspiration from multiple Asian fables and folktales, and a new leading lady who is the opposite of Xifeng. There will be desert chases and discoveries, a dangerous quest with high stakes, a friendship-to-romance relationship, and (of course!) the fulfillment of several characters’ ultimate destinies.