I was lucky enough to score a pre-published copy of Shannon Hale’s newest Bayern book at the Texas Library Association annual conference this year. I really loved The Goose Girl and enjoyed the sequel, Enna Burning, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading River Secrets yet (which is too bad, because Razo is one of my favorite characters). I knew Forest Born would be fun, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Forest Born focuses upon Rinna, Razo’s younger sister. For many years, Rin has felt like something is wrong with her. She senses some power within her that simultaneously thrills her and repulses her. When she lets her defenses down and uses this power, she is ashamed of herself and vows to never let it happen again. In order to keep this promise, Rin refuses to show her own self to the world and instead mimicks those around her that she finds more admirable than herself. She does it so well that no one in her large and loving family really knows who Rin is on the inside; they call her Ma’s shadow. Unsurprisingly, Rin feels trapped at home, and when her brother Razo returns for a visit, she leaves with him to go to the city. She meets up with the “Fire Sisters,” – Isi, Enna, and Dasha – and adventure ensues. The main thrust of the book concerns Rin learning who she is and how to be comfortable in her own skin. It’s a worthwhile lesson that many adults never learn, and it will resonate with young readers.
The story, which involves Rin setting out with her new companions to prevent a war and face an evil foe, was fun but predictable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is Hale’s writing that really elevates the book and makes it something special. As I read the first chapter, I was conscious of her skill as a writer. Take this excerpt:
“She listened harder, trembling with a desire to hear. A space inside her opened. Not a sound, not a smell, not even a feeling. If it had been a color, it might have been green. If it had touched her ears, it might have sounded rhythmic, like the creak of a rocking chair or the drone of a bee. If it had a scent, it might have been sweet and drowsy, like fresh pine on the fire. The place in her chest that had ached with panic now felt warbley and sweet, drowsy and green.”
The first chapter of Forest Born is one of the best first chapters I’ve read in any book, and it sets a good pace and tone for the rest of the adventure. I was immediately pulled into Rin’s mind and view of the world. After I had set the book down, I found myself unable to recall if Hale had written it in first or third person. I had to check to make sure – third person. A good measure of the depth of the main character, I think, is whether the author can fool you into believing a third person narrative is actually written in first person. So, while I was able to predict most of the events, it didn’t erode my enjoyment. The villain – a people speaker – was chillingly evil and reminded me a great deal of the villain in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (a good thing).
In contrast to the previous Books of Bayern that I have read, a large focus of the book is not a love story. In fact, the idea of a beau for Rin doesn’t crop up until the very end of the book, and Rin rejects it when it’s mentioned. It makes sense – she can’t consider entering in to such a union until she has become her own person, comfortable with her power and able to embrace it rather than simply mimicking everyone else. I was pleased by Hale’s slight departure from her normal routine in this manner. It brought some freshness to the story, and it lets young girls who live in our world know that it’s okay to decide not to date someone. Figuring out who you are needs to come first.
I saw Hale speak at the Texas Book Festival last year, and the many readers in attendance (children and adults!) were so enthusiastic about the Books of Bayern, it was hard not to get caught up in their excitement. (Okay, so I was one of the very excited adults.) I wasn’t let down by Forest Born, and I don’t think young adults will be either. For fans of Bayern, this book is a treat. Many characters from past books make an appearance, and the world in which Bayern exists is further fleshed out. At the same time, I don’t think I was at any disadvantage for not reading River Secrets, so readers new to Bayern shouldn’t have a problem. This wasn’t my favorite book by Hale, or even my second favorite, but she’s just such a good writer that even if it were my least favorite, it would be worth a read.
Forest Born is due out on September 15.