Review: Forest of Souls (Shamanborn #1)

Book cover. Young woman with golden glowing eyes. She has weapons strapped to her back that are visible above her shoulder. Her eyes are in shadow from trees. The sky is dark.

Title: Forest of Souls (Shamanborn #1)
Author: Lori M. Lee
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Pages: 385
Review copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now in hardcover/paperback

Summary: Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing, but she’s intent on becoming something. After years of training to become the queen’s next royal spy, her plans are derailed when shamans attack and kill her best friend Saengo.

And then Sirscha, somehow, restores Saengo to life.

Unveiled as the first soulguide in living memory, Sirscha is summoned to the domain of the Spider King. For centuries, he has used his influence over the Dead Wood—an ancient forest possessed by souls—to enforce peace between the kingdoms. Now, with the trees growing wild and untamed, only a soulguide can restrain them. As war looms, Sirscha must master her newly awakened abilities before the trees shatter the brittle peace, or worse, claim Saengo, the friend she would die for.

My review: First off, though you aren’t supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, go ahead and do that in this case. It’s a work of art. You can see the shadows of tree branches lightly across Sirscha’s face and her glowing eyes are fabulous. The spiders and branches within the title font are also lovely touches. Sirscha looks intense and gives off vibes that she’s not anyone to mess with if you enjoy being alive. Aside from the beautiful illustration and design, the Hmong representation is significant. There haven’t been many books to give to Hmong teens that would allow them to see themselves on the page so I’m excited to have this one out in the world. For those unfamiliar with Hmong culture, she will likely be seen as Asian in general, but for other readers, she’ll be distinctly Hmong. Laura Benton [book design] and Charlie Bowater [illustration] did a phenomenal job capturing the essence of the story and presenting Sirscha in such a powerful way. Fortunately, the cover doesn’t deceive–the story is also impressive.

Forest of Souls features a young woman who has been trained physically and mentally to face many kinds of dangers. This is not her only strength though. The friendship between Sirscha and Saengo sustains her through many difficulties and hardships. The two have a love that doesn’t waver. So many fantasies lean hard into romantic love, but here, the love between two childhood friends glows brightly in the dark and oppressive times they’re facing. It’s the true heart of the story.

Beyond their love and Sirscha’s well disguised tendency toward compassion, there is plenty of hate and evil threatening to destroy the world as they know it. It’s definitely a story with action, adventure, and many trials. The forest is particularly terrifying and though spiders generally aren’t particularly horrifying for me, anyone with the name Spider King is a little off-putting. Without giving too much away, I’d say, just let your imagination run with that name for a bit and see if it takes you anyplace cheerful and sunny. Likely not.

There are other creatures and beings in the book that are intriguing and the author has a pretty extensive glossary at the beginning of the book to help with understanding the world that readers are visiting. It was less annoying than large information dumps within a narrative. It’s nice so readers who want to understand everything from the start have it available right away, but others could skip or skim it and just refer back to it as needed,

There are quite a few Hmong people in the community where I live, so the story had a few familiar aspects to it. Lee used some specific Hmong names, words, food, and of course had shaman’s as one of the major races in the world. It’s still very much a fantasy though with a significant amount of imaginative world building that is more in the style of western epic fantasy. The book never mentions the Hmong culture by name, but Hmong elements are most definitely in evidence for readers who are looking for them and will likely be a very welcome discovery.

Societal distinctions between races are a significant issue within the story. Throughout her journey as a hero, Sirscha is dealing with how she is seen by others and how she views herself. Many readers will be able to relate with her inner conflict. Lee’s dedication is, “For everyone who’s ever wondered if they were enough.”

My recommendation: Get it now–especially if you are looking for a friendship story within a fantasy narrative. The sequel, Broken Web, just came out recently, so readers can get that one  immediately also.

Video Interview with Author [Meet the Pros with Eva Lee]