2020’s Forest of Souls is the first volume in Lori M. Lee’s Shamanborn series.
Foundling Sirscha Ashwyn seems destined to spend an unremarkable life as servant to her betters. But Sirscha is too ambitious for that. She apprentices herself to Kendara the Shadow, master spy/assassin for the kingdom of Evewyn.
Part of her training has consisted of service in the army. While there, she makes a friend, fellow soldier Saengo. She is dispatched on an errand by Kendara; Saengo accompanies her. It’s a trap; a shaman attacks with fire. Sirscha survives but Saengo does not.
What happens next is unexpected and quite disquieting.
Saengo comes back to life. Why? Shamanic magic, wielded by Sirscha. The shamanic attack wakened capabilities neither she nor her mentor had ever suspected. Reanimating the dead (to life, not as a zombie) isn’t one of the usual shamanic abilities, but then Sirscha isn’t your usual shaman. What she is will doubtless be revealed in the rest of this series.
The catch is that Evewyn’s queen takes a dim view of shamans. Shamans are imprisoned or executed. Sirscha needs to keep a low profile. Too bad that the awakening of shamanic powers is always accompanied by some minor but obvious physical transformation. In Sirscha’s case, it’s eyes. Her irises turn from grey to amber.
Sirscha is saved from prison or execution by a timely summons from Ronin, the Spider King of Thiy. He is centuries old and commands little understood magic, Ronin once defeated the Soulless (a legendary villain). It’s not clear that his interest in Sirscha is benign. Still … she can’t say no.
Ronin tells her why Saengo revived. Sirscha unwittingly transformed her friend into a familiar, the embodiment of Sirscha’s magic. The two are entangled: shamans need living familiars to work magic, while familiars must remain near their shaman to remain healthy.
The well-born Saengo is somewhat taken aback as the implications of her new role sink in.
Sirscha may be the first soulguide in living memory. She may therefore be able to control the Dead Wood, a cursed forest that forms the border between kingdoms, before it grows entirely out of control.
Or perhaps she’s simply an unwanted complication to politics as usual, a complication that should be eliminated at the first opportunity.
I quite like the Charlie Bowater cover art.
Sirscha is only feeling her way with magic but she’s an expert duellist and general sneaky person. It’s not quite clear why people who know she’s a trained assassin insist on engaging her in hand-to-hand combat. The reader can expect this to work out badly for antagonists who are not the central figure in an ongoing series and indeed, that’s what happens.
Saengo feels strongly about the inconveniences of familiar-ship; she doesn’t seem to consider that being an ageless familiar is a heck of a lot better than being a corpse, which was the other option. But I suppose that corpses can’t care that they are dead, whereas living familiars are all too aware of the new restrictions on their lives.
This book has received rave reviews on Goodreads. Clearly, the Goodreads reviews see virtues I am overlooking. The prose is competent, and the fight scenes are nicely done. Still, some of the plot twists are telegraphed by the fact that this is a series. Plot immunity and all that. While this book is written with professional skill, it seems all too familiar. Ah, well, I’m probably not the target market.