Julie C. Dao is a Vietnamese-American fantasy author. She is best known for her debut novel, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an East Asian-inspired retelling of the Evil Queen legend from Snow White, and its sequel Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix.
Early life and education
Dao was born in upstate New York. She studied pre-med biology in college but decided not to go into the field.
Dao made her literary debut with a self-published middle grade fantasy story called Pumpkin Patch Princess. In 2016 Dao received a three-book deal from Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Books.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, the first novel in the Rise of the Empress series, was published in 2017. The story is a dark fairy tale retelling of Snow White from the perspective of the villain, about women battling for control of a throne. Dao has said that she wrote Forest of a Thousand Lanterns because she longed to see herself represented in the books she was reading as a child, and has cited Chinese historical figure Empress Wu as an inspiration for Xifeng, the novel's protagonist. Rebecca Kuss, writing for Booklist, described Xifeng as an antiheroine whose "relentless pursuit of power is a welcome contrast to princesses of the past". Publishers Weekly called the book a "fascinating examination of destiny, responsibility, and how choices shape a person". Booklist named Forest of a Thousand Lanterns in its lists of Top 10 Diverse Fiction for Older and Middle Readers and Top 10 First Novels for Youth, and the New York Public Library recognized the book as one of its 2017 Best Books for Teens.
In 2018 Dao published the sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, titled The Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. It continues the story from the first book, but follows the princess's efforts to unseat her stepmother Xifeng from the throne. Eric Smith of Paste praised Dao's "beautiful writing and imaginative storytelling", but Kirkus Reviews compared the sequel unfavorably to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, noting that "the well-trodden paths involving forbidden poisoned apples, legendary swords, and magic invisibility cloaks will frustrate those who enjoyed the rich characterizations in Book 1". In The Christian Science Monitor Katie Ward Beim-Esche compared the book to American Psycho and Maleficent, noting that the hero's lack of charisma and apparent amorality of the protagonist raised questions about the distinctions between antiheros and villains.