[holds head in hands]
Why is this the year of me being disappointed by Asian fantasy?? Take me back to when I loved every single Asian-inspired YA fantasy book I read, PLEASE!
I’m very sad to be here today with a review of Forest of Souls that is… not as nice as I’d like to be. There are certain things that I think could work for certain people, and I did enjoy some aspects of the story, but unfortunately, I wasn’t the right audience for the book.
Lori M Lee || June 23, 2020
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.
Danger lurks within the roots of Forest of Souls, an epic, unrelenting tale of destiny and sisterhood, perfect for fans of Naomi Novik and Susan Dennard.
Thank you to Page Street Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review! This did not affect my opinion in any way.
All quotes are taken from an advance copy and may differ in final publication.
Forest of Souls is a YA fantasy filled with culture and magic inspired by Hmong shamanism. It follows Sirscha, whose life is suddenly disrupted after an attack kills her friend Saengo, and Sirscha accidentally brings her back to life. She’s taken under the Spider King and is tasked to attempt to control the Dead Wood, a creepy forest full of the souls of the dead, but more sinister forces are at play than she realizes.
While I unfortunately had more negative things to say about this book than positive, I still was able to enjoy it to some extent. I had issues with the actual craft of the story, but there were also some things that were just personally not for me, so they could possibly work for you!
WHAT I LIKED
It is not from the world that I need acknowledgement of my worth.
After trudging through the first third of the book, I flew through the rest really quickly! I’m not sure why or how I was able to read so much in so little time, but the writing was simple for me to read and get into (after a rough beginning). There are lots of plot events to keep you on your toes during the middle and end,
I really loved that there wasn’t a romance. So many YA fantasies are focused on romance, and while I love reading it, I’d like to see other types of relationships written about as well. This one is definitely more focused on Sirscha’s friendship with Saengo, as well as Sirscha’s own individual journey, and not having a romance was so refreshing. (Especially when there are two male characters, who I feel like would have been a part of a love triangle in any other book!)
Sirscha’s story is one of worth, and how we often tie our own self-worth to other people. She thought her value as a person was based on what she could offer as a spy to the queen, or a soulguide for the Spider King, but by the end she learns to be more independent and do things for herself, and I appreciated that.
The worldbuilding was interesting to me, and I thought it was decently done! There are a few info-dumpy parts, and I wished certain aspects had been more expanded upon, but there’s a very helpful and descriptive glossary. It draws on Hmong culture, and I loved reading about the inclusion of shamanism and magic.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
The beginning is so slow. I first started reading it a month ago and I read about 100 pages. But I genuinely thought I’d only read 50 pages because it had moved so slowly, and I couldn’t believe that I’d read so much while so little had happened.
This book is absolutely more plot-driven than character-driven, meaning that Sirscha didn’t have that much of an active role in the story. As someone who really cares about characters and their arcs, I wasn’t the right audience for a plot-driven book, and I just wanted to see a lot more from the characters.
Honestly, there was just so much potential with Sirscha that wasn’t tapped into. I wish we could have seen more of the skills she’d picked up while training to be a spy, or her shamanic soul magic craft. (Her magic was the one thing I didn’t really understand from the worldbuilding.) There were also hints of her being scarily indifferent to killing others or having power over them, and I was so sad that that kind of darkness wasn’t developed more!
On top of that, Sirscha “declared” certain things that were supposed to be empowering to support her character growth, and I feel like that’s a kind of common thing in YA that I’ve outgrown. I just personally like my character development to be more subtle, so seeing that kind of mental announcement made her growth feel cheap to me.
[…] I was afraid. Not for my life. I was afraid of being invisible, a fear I’ve held close from the moment I was old enough to understand that I’d been abandoned with no true name.
I said before that I liked that there was no romance, but I wanted to see more from their friendship before Saengo was killed. I didn’t care about their close bond enough to feel something about how their relationship was disrupted by her death and subsequent reviving, so their friendship didn’t have as much of an impact on me. Overall, actually, a lot of the book was built up on little twists or reveals, but they fell flat because they hadn’t been developed, so it was just like “okay cool… why does this matter.”
My last complaint is that there was a very “detached” feeling with the book in general. I can’t tell if it’s me who couldn’t connect to Sirscha, or if the writing was at fault and didn’t portray Sirscha’s emotions well, but was frustrating to read because I never felt like I was transported to this world. I feel like I could have enjoyed this book so much more had I been able to immerse myself in it.
(Also, I’m going to be real honest: There’s a sassy side character named Theyen and he provided all the entertainment. If only there could have been more from him, or just… less dryness from the other characters.)
I’m conflicted on how I should feel about this. Because on one hand, lots of things were just so eh to me that I didn’t care, but on the other hand, I genuinely was interested to see where the story went at one point and flew through the book. But unfortunately overall, this book fell flat.
I think things end on an intriguing cliffhanger, so I’m actually, cautiously interested in reading the sequel (especially to see if Sirscha’s character arc becomes darker), if that is any reassurance? This might not be for you if you’re a fan of books that focus more on characters, like me, but if a plot-driven fantasy with captivating worldbuilding and magic sounds up your alley, I’d recommend checking this out.
:: rep :: Asian-coded cast
:: content warnings :: death/murder (including loved ones), battle violence, imprisonment, mentions of mutilation, loved one with disease/infection, spiders
do you have this book on your tbr? are you a fan of more plot-driven or character-driven books? do you like books with romance or without?