This week I’m recommending a book published for Young Adults – `Forest Born’ by Shannon Hale (2010). Nowadays there is a huge amount of Young Adult Fantasy written about and for, and occasionally by, teenage girls. People who aren’t inclined to be young or female often avoid this type of fiction as if it was a sparkly pink plague, which means that they sometimes miss out on a good book. `Forest Born’ does feature a teenage heroine but it’s a novel worth reading whatever your current age or gender. Available in paperback or as an ebook, `Forest Born’ is the fourth of Hale’s `Books of Bayern’. The series began with `The Goose Girl’, which was inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tale of the same name (see also my recent post on `Thorn’) and continued with `Enna Burning’ and `River Secrets’. Each of the `Books of Bayern’ is a complete story centred on a different viewpoint character, so there is no need to have read the other three before trying `Forest Born’.
In the great Forest of Bayern lives a girl with six brothers. Rinna (Rin) Agget loves her forest-home and feels a strong affinity with its trees. She helps to look after the whole Agget clan and is her mother’s favourite child but Rin has a secret. Sometimes she can make people do things they don’t want to do. Convinced that she has a `bad core’ and that even the trees have turned against her, Rin is desperate to leave home before her family discover what she is really like. She cannot confess her fears even to her favourite brother, Razo, but he and his foreign girlfriend, Dasha, can see how unhappy Rin is. They take her back with them to Bayern’s capital city. Razo was once just a shepherd but he became a loyal friend to a Goose Girl who turned out to be a princess in disguise. Now the Goose Girl, Isi, is married to King Geric of Bayern and Razo belongs to the elite regiment known as Bayern’s Own.
Razo gets his sister a job in the palace helping to look after Geric and Isi’s young son. Rin adores the little prince and comes to admire the gentle queen but Bayern and its royal family are under threat. Villages near the border with Kel have been burned and when Geric goes to investigate he and his men are attacked by fire-speakers – men or women who can summon fire and use it to maim and kill. Queen Isi, who is a wind-speaker, is determined to find out who has trained these fire-speakers and ordered them to destroy Bayern. On her secret mission she takes her friend Enna, who is a very powerful fire-speaker, and Dasha, who is a water-speaker. Rin yearns to be like these `fearless women’ and runs away to join them. When they encounter a formidable enemy from Isi’s past, Rin must choose between using the powers she hates or losing the people she loves.
Acting on a hint in the original `Goose Girl’ story about the princess being able to summon a wind to do her bidding, Hale has created a mythical Golden Age in which all beings and elements of the universe could communicate with each other in the divine language. By Rin’s time, that age is long past but there are still people born with the gifts of people-speaking, animal-speaking or nature-speaking. Nature-speakers like Isi, Enna and Dasha can communicate with forces such as a air, fire and water and wield them as weapons. Hale has worked out the details of this well, but superficially nature-speaking sounds like one of those convenient powers that people acquire in Fantasy role-playing games. What makes Hale’s treatment of these powers stand out is the sensitive way she describes the drawbacks and long-term emotional effects of using this kind of magic. Enna, for example, has never recovered from the horror of having to use her fire-speaking to destroy an invading army. Isi, Enna and Dasha`balance’ their power by learning each other’s magical languages. It’s a lesson in avoiding extremism by following more than one path.
Another distinctive feature of the `Books of Bayern’ is that people-speaking is presented as by far the most dangerous and corrupting gift to have. People-speakers can make other people `listen to them, and believe them, and love them’. In `Forest Born’ the consequences of this are shown to be toxic. A people-speaker who is obsessed with gaining power ruthlessly manipulates her followers into doing terrible things for her unworthy cause. It is all too easy to think of contemporary parallels. This novel is honest about how difficult it can be to help victims of such brain-washing to recover from it. No wonder poor Rin is horrified by the idea that she might be a people-speaker. She is overcome by the kind of self-loathing that so many teenage girls now seem to suffer from. Fortunately Rin has the three women she thinks of as the `fire sisters’ – Isi, Enna and Dasha – to hearten and inspire her. This is a book in which there are lots of interesting conversations between women which aren’t about men.
The novel also contains plenty of action and suspense but essentially `Forest Born’ is about the inner life of a young woman who wants to be a heroine but fears she’s a villainess. Rin wonders if everyone secretly feels lost and like a stranger in their own home. It’s a state of mind which many people will be familiar with. Rin thinks she’s only `half a girl’ in comparison to brave Isi, Enna and Dasha but the `fire sisters’ are far from invincible. Discovering their vulnerabilities in a crisis helps Rin to accept her own weaknesses and to build on her strengths. When talking about storytelling, Queen Isi says that `in order to see the story it has to be a bit removed from what is actually real’. Hale’s story of magical gifts gives a clear picture of some dangerous psychological states and the strength of will needed to overcome them. Teenagers can be fascinating to read (and write) about because their characters are still being formed, or deformed, by internal and external pressures. Everything is still to play for, so please don’t reject a novel simply because it’s about a teenage girl. Until next time….