THE BOOKS OF BAYERN #4
Oh, author Shannon Hale, you got me again. I thought you’d fallen so in love with your own characters from the first 3 books of the series, that book 4 would just be an excuse to go hang out with them again. Regardless of a plot. You know, any excuse to hold a party for the old gang?
Book 4 does give us ample time to reminisce at the figurative class reunion of main characters of The Books of Bayern. And yup, it’s pretty clear that Hale does love her creations. The characterizations of favorites like Enna, Isi, and Razo are perhaps even sharper than they were in their own feature books. Enna is a charismatic Bridezilla as she prepares for her wedding to the love of her life, Finn. Dasha and Enna enjoy accentuating their differences with the lively banter you would imagine a fire-speaker and water-speaker would use. And Isi and Enna’s friendship has drawn them even closer. We can feel the twining of their paths and choices.
But what surprised me was how compelling our new main character, Rin, is.
In many ways she shouldn’t steal the scene at all. Rin is Razo’s youngest sister. She’s not a noble, doesn’t associate with nobles. In fact she’s never stepped outside her beloved Forest. She’s a hick from Hicksville. She’s loved but often taken for granted by her gaggle of family members. And for reasons we’ll discover as the book progresses, she’s the very definition of a repressed personality.
Which should make the reader want to overlook Rin, too, when all our favorite characters are back with quips and updates to their own storylines. Rin spends most of her time trying to impersonate wallpaper. She desperately wants to be noticed, and desperately fears speaking out. And perhaps, the reader slowly learns, Rin has good reason to fear what will happen if she ever speaks out.
And that’s what makes her interesting.
The plot picks up when Rin leaves her Forest home and travels to the capital with big bro Razo. She’s just looking for escape from her old life, but it turns out she’s a natural nursemaid to young Prince Tusken, Isi and Geric’s son. When war threatens with the nearby kingdom of Kel, Rin sneaks out to join the expedition. She senses that the “Fire Sisters” (Isi, Enna, and Dasha, with their powers to speak to fire, wind, and water) hold the key to her own identity. It is not their magical abilities that impress her so much as their loyalty, confidence, and sense of self. Yet the more Rin imitates these larger-than-life personalities, the more she realizes her own personality is just an imitation.
When the Fire Sisters are captured in Kel, can Rin find a strength inside herself, a strength that is entirely her own, to save them? Or will the unleashing of this power destroy them all?
Like the other Books of Bayern, this book is about identity and power. But Rin’s take on the theme is her own. From the beginning, there is a battle of powers within her. We as readers cheer for her to fully master her powers, but we also fear it, as she does.
One power I feel I can reveal, the other one might be a spoiler, so I’ll only hint. Rin can speak to trees. Only, trees don’t say much, so she’s more of a tree-listener.
I’ve seen many characters in superhero films, books, movies, anime, cartoons, who had a plant power. Commonly this means they can make things grow, or fling vines around like lassos. Hale has such a new take on what a tree-speaking power might be. Just as in Enna Burning, when she pressed us to think about the warmth of fire as life-giving, here she probes into trees as something hollow yet very rooted and pure. Trees don’t have consciousness, but they reflect your own consciousness back to you. They take little notice of time and tempest. By their very nature of just being, they help Rin see the truth, both ugly and beautiful, about herself and her other power.
A power which I promised not to reveal, but let me just say we’ve seen it before in this series, but never like this. I found it the scariest of all the powers Hale mentions in her world, even more frightening than fire. Perhaps that’s because we as readers can’t control wind or fire or water, but this other power Rin has is in many ways alive and potent in the world today. And in places as varied as the political arena to the high school lunchroom. Books as old as the Bible warn about the damage this power can do. Of all the powers in the series, it’s the one we as readers are most likely to have ourselves. And like Rin, we must come to terms with it and learn to control it, or injure those around us.
Besides the potent use of theme, the biggest delight in this book is, once again, Razo.
He’s just as irrepressible as he’s been throughout the series. Some of his scenes are standup comedy. He’s the ideal oldest brother: affectionate, funny, protective, and but not strict. Razo just couldn’t do strict. The family bond between Razo and Rin (and their mother) is touching and complex. The strength of it makes it that much more painful when Rin worries that her selfish actions could one day cost her their love.
Forest Born is as powerful a contribution to Hale’s series as any of the 4.
When I look as this series as a whole, it’s Razo’s book, River Secrets, that doesn’t quite blend in. The books with female main characters are deep in a way that is almost autumnal. Razo’s book also speaks to the issue of identity and the need for love, yet the tone is more sprightly. Razo’s book smells of adventure and bacon. But Razo is in every book. His high spirits and humor are a necessary thread in the fabric of the series.