Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Review: Forest Born by Shannon Hale

Book: Forest Born
Author: Shannon Hale
Published: 2009
Source: Local Library

Rinna has always been the good daughter, the good sister, the good aunt. What nobody in all the crowd of her relatives knows is that she has a secret, monstrous ability that she has suppressed for years out of fear of what she might or could do with it. When her brother Razo offers her the chance to accompany him back to the castle and meet his friend the queen, she leaps at it, believing that in the city she'll find the answer to the question of what is wrong with her. But just as she couldn't bury it, she also can't run from it. It's not long before she's tangled up in battle against someone who has the same terrible gift, and who's much, much better at it. Can Rinna harness her dreadful power long enough to rescue her newfound friends?

This is the fourth (and according to the author's blog, probably last) in the Books of Bayern series, and as such I grabbed it up. "Girl power" is such a cliched term lately but it's one that can unironically be applied to this series, which is about strong girls playing on international stages. Do I think Forest Born is absolutely the bestest thing ever written by anybody? No. It's a good book, especially for those who enjoyed the first three books, but it doesn't stand out from the rest of Hale's backlist (and that's okay, because she's a consistently good writer). I wanted to write this review because I feel like Hale is saying something interesting about girls and women in the character of Rinna, and writing it out is a way of unpacking it a little more.

Rinna has a gift for making people do what she wants. This isn't just someone with a lot of charm or a mighty force of will, but a truly supernatural power for manipulation and coercion. She has suppressed that gift, becoming instead the person that everybody else wants her to be: Ma's steady helper, her brother Razo's sidekick. She consciously takes on character traits from those she's currently with, becoming what they want her to be, which is often a reflection of themselves. In a way, this is a facet of her gift: she knows what they want and she gives it to them. Of course, as any number of women can tell you, the dark side of this habit is that she doesn't really know who Rinna is.

In our culture, women and girls are not supposed to desire things or people. We shouldn't be greedy, we shouldn't be lustful, or nobody will love us. Rinna first uses her power as a child, when she forces a relative to give her some items she covets. The second episode isn't until years later, when she forces a neighbor boy to kiss her. After both these episodes, she draws back from this terrible power, convinced that nobody will love her if they find out what she can do. Feminist sisters arise, this girl is oppressing herself!

And yet . . . and yet . . . patriarchal terror of female power aside, Rinna's gift really can so easily slide into monstrosity. She knows what to say in order to get right at somebody's worst feelings about themselves. Her scene with the neighbor boy is something right out of Mean Girls as she manipulates him to get what she wants. Hale holds back on showing us exactly what went on with that until the middle of the book, and where before I'd been rolling my eyes a little and saying, "Rinna, honey, so you got a boy to kiss you! Get over your slutty self!" I read that scene and felt pretty squidgy. Quite honestly, if the situation had been reversed, Wilem manipulating Rinna, I'd've been calling for her to nail him in the happy sacks. The eventual endpoint of such power unchecked comes in the villain, who holds an entire castleful of people in her thrall. Rinna takes her as a warning but also feels unwilling sympathy for her, lonely even while blindly beloved.

So what is Hale saying? Don't manipulate others? Be yourself? Be careful about being yourself too much? It's not that simple. Rinna's gift can be dangerous, very easily, but it's also a power that can be used for good, as is shown by Rinna in a few different scenes toward the end. The power doesn't make Rinna evil, it's how she chooses to use it. And that sounds so Disney-fairy-tale-moral-ish, but Hale ably shows how easy it is to make the wrong choice, to use it wrongly or to avoid it wrongly, and then to be mired in regret for the wrong choices you've made. Three examples of women living with powers are Isi, Enna, and Dasha, whom readers will recognize from other books. Rinna idolizes them at first, then slowly comes to see two things: how their powers have made their lives difficult and how they are loved and accepted, powers and all.

The first three books of this series have included a romance subplot, so I was expecting one out of this book, but ultimately I'm glad I didn't get it. Rinna needs to accept and love herself before she can have anything like a meaningful romance with someone else. By the end of the book, she has stepped a careful foot onto that path, but she's not far enough along it for that.


Melissa said...

Fabulous review, Maureen. Not something I'd even picked up in the book, but I can totally see it. Now I want to go reread the book...

Sandra Stiles said...

I absolutely love Shannon Hale's books. I own the first three in this series and now I need the last one.

Carrie said...

I KNOW I've read something by Shannon Hale and everytime I see her name I wrack my brain trying to think of which it was!

Maybe I haven't.

And if I haven't, then I probably need to.

Thanks for the review!