We meet Sirscha Ashwyn as she arrives at the home of her mentor Kendara. Sirscha is currently apprentice to the Queen’s shadow but she is just one of a few, maybe even many. To become the Queen’s spy, she must be able to prove that she is the best, that she is more than enough. She works hard but continues to feel deficient, especially as individuals like the officit leading the students to visit the prison for shamanborn and Jonyah Thao, her best friend Saengo’s cousin, continue to debase her because of her upbringing; Sirscha is an orphan, and orphans are of no value. Ultimately, it is the discovery of a rival for the coveted position that will lead to Saengo’s death, her subsequent resurrection, and the revelation that Sirscha is a lightwender, specifically a soulguide with the ability to guide souls to the afterlife or to bring them back to life. This will likely have reverberations for the kingdoms and ultimately results in Ronin, the Spider King, summoning both Sirscha and Saengo to Spinner’s End.
It makes sense that Lori M. Lee’s Forest of Souls should be the first book I blog about. It’s really fate I think. When I preordered it, all I thought about was how I wanted to read this and June was going to take forever to get here. I had no thoughts about blogging about it. Now, here I am, avoiding my real job so I can instead write about this book. I also promise that reviews won’t normally be this long. I started writing and I just couldn’t stop.
Do you know how long I’ve waited for a Hmong science fiction/fantasy author? I didn’t even know this was what I was looking for until it appeared on one of my feeds and “clack, clack” went my laptop as I preordered and “swipe, swipe” went my fingers as I read Lee’s first two novels to overcome the long wait.
REFLECTING ON SIRSCHA ASHWYN
Sirscha Ashwyn is driven. We know that in how she desperately she wants to become the Queen’s shadow. Sirscha Ashwyn is impulsive. It is her rash actions that lead to Saengo’s death. And, Sirscha Ashwyn is arrogant. More than once she refers to how formidable her skills are, how it has been a long time since anyone has been able to beat her. But even with all her bravado, all these things stem from a single motivation, fear. She is afraid of not being remembered, of the world—maybe even history—casting her aside such as her parents did when they left her at a temple. She seeks notoriety but what she is really looking for is acceptance, a place in the world where she can belong. The relationship she has with Saengo propels her forward because Saengo is the sole individual who truly accepts her as she is. To Saengo, she is more than enough. Saengo is more than just her best friend; Saengo is her family. Who are we if the people we love cease to exist? Maybe this is what triggers Sirscha’s shaman craft to materialize. A love—or maybe a fear—so strong it enables to her to bring Saengo back to life. With Saengo, there is no uncertainty as to Sirscha’s role, whereas the only other person Sirscha has any kind of relationship with, Kendara, is just a mentor and not necessarily the maternal figure she desperately wants.
If Sirscha Ashwyn feels incomplete, it’s because she still doesn’t really know who she is—she lacks a sense of self beyond others’ views of her. Who is she? What does she want? There is a hollowness to her actions and her words. It’s probably why when she decides that she will help the shamanborn, I desperately wanted her to do it due to a sense of duty to protect her people but ultimately felt empty because it was more about her pursuit to be “more than.” It’s also probably why it was unconvincing to hear her tell Prince Meilek that he needed to care about his people, both human and shamanborn, when she did not seem to really care either. She’s still finding herself and Forest of Souls is our foray into her journey. Lee has since announced that this will be a trilogy rather than a duology so I’m excited to join Sirscha on her path to self-discovery. I expect that in the later books, she will find her footing and, I hope, will recognize that notoriety is a byproduct of doing the right thing for the right reasons. And sometimes, being the world to one person is more important than being the chosen one to the rest of the world. And, more importantly, that she is enough…but if she ends up saving the world along the way, that’s pretty epic too. (Yeah, I know. I have a bit of a do-good for the sake of good hero complex when I read about badass females in SFF. I can’t help it.)
REFLECTING ON THE BOOK
A lot of the book is walking to and running from with events scattered in-between. I’m probably exaggerating but it really felt like there was just so much of it, going into the Dead Wood and then out of the Dead Wood. So, the Dead Wood is probably pretty important. What is the Dead Wood? The Dead Wood is the titular forest of souls, where the trees are alive and devour those who dwell in it, capturing their souls. But it also serves as home to the mysterious Spider King who controls it as well as a border of sorts that keeps the tentative peace between the kingdoms.
Despite this, Forest of Souls remains a captivating read because Lee excels in world-building. Lee provides us glimpses into the world through Sirscha’s eyes, so throughout the book, readers are treated to lush descriptions of the world we are immersing ourselves into. If you’ve read her other two novels, Gates of Thread and Stone and its sequel The Infinite, you’ll know that, in a similar fashion, the world-building and the introduction of characters largely occurred in the first book whereas the second book was more riveting and plot-driven.
Following the path of Gates of Thread and Stone, Forest of Souls only introduces characters, the exceptions being Sirscha and Saengo. It is Sirscha and Saengo’s friendship driving the book so it makes sense that we first build our relationship to this world through them. Then there are other characters that contribute to the world we now find ourselves engaged in. We meet Kendara but only learn she is the Queen’s Shadow. We hear about Queen Mielyr but never meet her. We meet Prince Meilek in what feel like fleeting moments and are treated to impressions of him but we never get to know him. Then there is Theyen Yee, and it is difficult to discern whether he will be friend or foe because their interactions seem superficial. Of course, the infamous Spider King, Ronin is introduced to us but again, moments with him are rare as well. The other person Sirscha spends time with is Phaut. Aside from Sirscha and Saengo, she is probably the only other character we spend more time with. She is in service to Ronin and guards Sirscha, but we never really get to know her either. Being this is a trilogy, I expect many of these individuals will be fleshed out later so it does not necessarily take away from the book but can at times make one feel disconnected. Should I care about these other people? Then again, it is told from a first-person perspective so it makes some sense that we don’t know them because Sirscha doesn’t really know them either.
Did it live up to my internalized hype? More or less. I was enthralled with the idea that the story was inspired by Hmong culture and the traditional practice of animism. Do you remember that feeling as a kid when you would see or hear your name somewhere and you would get excited? A character in a book had your same name, or there was a song with your name in it? I had that feeling when the Hmong last name “Thao” showed up as a character’s last name or when words like “tshauv taws” and “zaj” appeared. See how the kid in us never really fully ceases to exist? Also, see how representation matters? SFF has such a diverse audience and needs to start reflecting this diversity.
As a word of caution, I am Hmong but not necessarily an expert on Hmong culture. I agree with Lee that there is much in the Hmong culture that can serve as inspiration for writing, especially for SFF. Inspiration is scattered throughout but here are the things that called to me.
Variations of animism exist beyond the one many Hmong adhere to but generally it is believed that all creatures have a soul and spirits can do harm to people. The Dead Wood is one instance of this. The trees are dead but they’re alive, consuming the living and entrapping their souls, preventing them from going to the world beyond. Other books have woods or forests similar to the Dead Wood. It is not exactly novel, but no author has directly attributed inspiration for her novel coming from Hmong culture, so yes, the Dead Wood is now special to me. I proclaim that all other woods such as this are now dead to me. There is only the Dead Wood.
There’s a part in the story when Sirscha is worried about whether there will be someone to guide the spirit of a man who has died, and it got me choked up. There was just so much sorrow behind those words. If you understand the role of death in the Hmong culture, you understand the significance of Hmong funerals, the intricacies of the songs and the rituals performed; you understand the importance of finding the right people to guide the soul to his final home. To have Sirscha be concerned about this individual shows that in the short timespan she has learned she is shamanborn, she has already slightly shifted in her thinking about other people, even if she is still mostly concerned about being remembered. Then again, I could just be reading more into it than went into writing it. I don’t know…but I’ll stick with my interpretation though.
Then there’s the most important nod to Hmong culture, shamans. The book is all about the shamanborn. It’s main character is one. The trilogy is called Shamanborn. This was pretty exciting. Shamans are generally respected individuals in Hmong culture who are spiritual healers. While some may learn it like a skill, it is more a calling that lays dormant until there is an awakening of the shaman spirits. People who still adhere to the traditional religion seek out shamans to protect against malevolent spirits and often to call back the lost spirit of someone who is ill. From a personal perspective, adherence to animism or shamanism does not set spiritual healing against “western medicine.” They are complementary, two halves of a whole that lead to holistic wellbeing. In Forest of Souls, shamans have control over different elements: fire, water, earth, wind, and light. From each of these elements, there are different crafts that may be a shaman’s calling. Lightwenders are likely the closest to Hmong shamans with their dealings with spirits and souls.
The book is 3 stars for me, and if I’m being honest borders a bit on the lower end; I liked it but there could be more. And I’m betting that there is. I can’t help but be a little bit biased that the book is inspired by a rich culture that is then transformed by the fantastical mind of a self-proclaimed unicorn aficionado into something entirely her own. She does such a great job of it too! Forest of Souls is most definitely not a stand-alone novel–it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. It is, though, a beginning. And in the beginning…yes there was light…but in the beginning there is birth. Things are happening; things are being set in motion. Forest of Souls is building up to something big and my experience with Lee is that the buildup often leads to an explosive ending.
I couldn’t end this review without sharing what is one of the most vivid descriptions in the book, a reminder of why I like reading books by Lori M. Lee.
After taking more time to think about the book–really letting it ruminate–I realize that what I like about the book is based on what I know it can be as opposed to what it is. I think this further solidifies why it was 3-star but fell close to being 2.5 stars. This gives me more reason to read the rest of the trilogy because I know that it can be better.