Julie C. Dao talks dark retellings and upcoming projects

"I envisioned a duology that was two halves of a whole, light and dark, yin and yang, balancing each other out."

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The story of the Evil Queen and Snow White is one we all know and love but one we tend to connect to a young girl serenading woodland creatures and seven dwarfs, not the climb a young woman determined to become the ruler she’s destined to be. Thankfully, in 2017, Author Julie C. Dao came along and changed all that with her debut novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a dark reimagining of the beloved tale. With dark magic and a strong yet conflicted protagonist making you question your morals at every turn of a page, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a beautifully written retelling and one that perfectly accompanies its newly released and equally wonderful sequel, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix.

We got the chance to talk to Julie about how she got into the mindset to write such dark tales and what we can expect from the Rise of the Empress duology finale and future projects.


For those who may not know what the Rise of the Empress duology is about, how would you entice them to pick up a copy?

The duology tells the tale of Snow White as you’ve never seen it before. The first book, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, is the origin story of the Evil Queen and follows the rise of a dark Empress in a fantasy Asia. The companion novel, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix, is the tale of the wicked Empress’s stepdaughter, who has been exiled and embarks on a mystical quest to summon an army with which she will reclaim her crown.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns came to an intense and beautiful end, what can readers expect from the sequel, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix?

I wrote the two books as companions, so those who haven’t read the first book can still enjoy Kingdom. But I hope that those who have read it will love recognising the seeds I planted throughout, which finally bloom in Kingdom. The tale of the lanterns will come to life and familiar faces will return, and of course readers will get to see what Xifeng has been up to in the fifteen years since Forest ended.



Both of your books have some very dark elements and one of the best villains I’ve ever read, is there anything that helped get you into the mindset to write those scenes?

Thank you so much! I listen to a lot of instrumental music when I write, and I had a playlist for Xifeng that helped me get into her headspace. There are dark villainous pieces from the Batman movie scores by Hans Zimmer, some songs by the epic trailer music group Two Steps From Hell, and much of Joe Hisaishi’s score for Princess Mononoke.

Forest of A Thousand Lanterns is incredibly clever in the way it weaves into it the story of the Evil Queen, if you could write a dark retelling of another fairytale, which would you choose?

I have always loved Hansel and Gretel, and I would most certainly enjoy writing a story from the witch’s perspective!

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was your debut novel, do you have any advice for aspiring authors based on your own journey to becoming published?

Keep your writer friends close! You’ll need people who get you and your journey. They will cheer and celebrate with you because they will understand exactly how hard getting published is. Also, never forget how much you love writing. If you hope to be traditionally published, you will likely hear a lot of “No” in your quest for an agent and a book deal, which is just part of the business. So do not lose that magic that pushed you to write in the first place.

Despite being a duology, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix follow two different protagonists, is this something you’d planned to do all along?

Absolutely. I wanted the Evil Queen and Snow White to each have their own books. I envisioned a duology that was two halves of a whole, light and dark, yin and yang, balancing each other out. Everyone thinks of themselves as the hero of their own story, so I thought it would be intriguing to try and see if I could write two women who are completely, morally different and present them as worthy heroines of their own tales. They each get a say.

Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix features multiple intricate stories within the main narrative, in which dictate Jade’s journey, what was your inspiration behind these?

As a big fantasy reader growing up, I have always loved nested stories and adventure quests. I liked the idea of tales coming to life and leading a character along her journey, so I decided to choose that format for Kingdom!

Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is the finale to the Rise of the Empress duology but is there any chance readers will be able to explore the world more in the future?

Yes! I’m writing a standalone YA fantasy that is set in the same universe! More on this soon, I hope…

Now that the Rise of the Empress duology is complete, are you currently working on anything and if so, can you give us a hint as to what that might be?

Aside from that standalone YA fantasy, I plan to work on a separate and completely unrelated fantasy. I’m also hoping to get back to a YA ghost story and a MG action/adventure story in the near future!

Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is available to buy now in the US and UK.

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