Forest of Souls is the first book in the Shamanborn series by Lori M. Lee, author of Gates of Thread and Stone, The Infinite, and self-described “unicorn aficionado”. This book is the first leg of an epic journey full of political intrigue, magic, friendship, and darkness.
In this story, we meet Sirscha Ashwyn: an orphan obsessed with rising above her status as a houseless reject and becoming the Queen’s Shadow—a Master Spy answerable to only to Queen Meilyr herself. To reach her goal, Sirscha becomes the apprentice to the current Shadow, a woman named Kendara. And at Kendara’s behest, she joins the Queen’s Company, the royal army academy where she is bullied and degraded due to her orphan status. However, she endures these things because of her friendship with a high-born girl named Saengo and the prospect of winning the coveted spot as Shadow over the other apprentices.
Because she is one of a number of apprentices, Sirscha’s ascension is not guaranteed. When she learns one of her most hated rivals is another apprentice, she disobeys the commands of the Company to intercept a task set before him where shamans attack her, the only people in Evewyn more lowly than her. Shamans are a hated race, hunted, imprisoned, and executed because of an accident that killed the previous King and Queen, Queen Meilyr’s parents. During the attack, Sirscha’s rival almost dies, Saengo actually dies, Sirscha resurrects Saengo and discovers she is a shaman herself. The two friends also become known as deserters and are hunted by the Company.
Now an outlaw and scared of what she has become, Sirscha seeks out Ronin the Spider King, the most powerful shaman in the realm. He has kept the peace among humans, shamans, and the shadowborn for centuries. She reaches Ronin with the help of an unexpected ally, Prince Meilek—the Queen’s brother. He gives Sirscha safe passage to the edge of the forbidden zone of the Dead Wood, where Ronin lives and where trees rip flesh and capture souls.
Sirscha meets Ronin, and he tells her about her power. She is a not only a lightrender shaman but the rarest kind: a Soulguide. Her destiny is to destroy the expanding Dead Wood that threatens all people and bring peace to the realm. His proof? Sirscha used her power to resurrect her best friend and accidentally made the girl her familiar—mystical beasts that channels a shaman’s power. There’s never been a human familiar before, and Soulguides are the only ones who can resurrect the dead. It all sounds like a great destiny, but Sirscha rejects this. She doesn’t trust Ronin, she trusts magic even less, and the whole Soulguide business gets in the way of her real goals: becoming the Queen’s Shadow and saving her best friend from being a familiar. In service to those goals, Sirscha makes a series of decisions that have devastating and broad-reaching personal and political consequences that upends her personal world and brings the outer world to the brink of war and annihilation from an indestructible force.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The story is rich and ripe with multiple intriguing conflicts that would make for compelling storytelling. Lee does well at weaving dense worldbuilding and context into the fabric of the tale at appropriate times. The story is satisfying, yet leaves many questions that need answers. It does end on kind of a cliffhanger, but the implication of the cliffhanger is clear. So instead of feeling frustrated at the ending, I felt anticipatory and cannot wait to read the second book.
Though the book is plot-heavy, it seems more character-driven to me. It reminds me of Game of Thrones, where individual passions and pursuits can have a broad sociological impact. And though Sirscha appears to have the trappings of a “Chosen One” narrative, the action is not driven by who she is but by what she does. One of her core personality traits: single-mindedness drives much of the plot. Her need to “prove herself” and her single-mindedness in this regard drives much of the actions and leads to both hopeful and heart-rending circumstances to different groups of people she encounters through the tale. I found myself alternating between wanting to smack Sirscha upside the head and rooting for her.
I met several characters I came to love and am already shipping with Sirscha, though I’d be perfectly content if she ended up with no one. I appreciate that the “love” that this story focuses on is that of friendship and the drive that provides. There are also several mysterious characters we never meet, but their actions are a huge part of the plot, namely, Queen Meilyr. Though a significant antagonist, we only “see” the Queen through the eyes of others and her actions on the page. We have yet to meet her but know there is more to her story and that of Kendara. These are deft strokes by Lee.
Forest of Souls is an immersive read that I highly recommend. The storytelling is rich and authentic, and it’s just the kind of voice we need right now.
Forest of Souls is available from Page Street Kids.
Genine Tyson is an African-American writer who traveled East to West to settle in California for the last several years. Since obtaining her creative writing degree, she has done nothing with it except get a job and write on weekends, but things changed. Embracing her love of monsters, magic, and machines, she is working on two novels at once -because writing one isn’t hard enough—apparently. To connect, find Genine on Twitter @geninet or on her blog.