Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee is a beautifully written debut featuring a spooky forest, a soul-based magic system, and a pretty fantastic heroine.
Sirscha is a spy-in-training and an orphan, dreaming of one day becoming the Queen’s Shadow. The arrival of her powers came in random bursts in high-intensity moments, which was a little disappointing considering we are continuously reminded of her hardships when training under her mentor, which I love because I absolutely despise characters who are seemingly good at everything yet aren’t shown to have worked hard to attain those skills. I get that magic is different, considering in many systems it’s just innate, but it would have been interesting to see her struggle and train as opposed to randomly shooting powers at opportune moments. Her reluctance to use her magic, though, was the most interesting aspect of that arc, and I can’t wait to see it develop further in the next two books, along with her self-image.
Above all, the novel was about her own growth, so I would’ve really enjoyed seeing Sirscha’s training continue throughout the book, because I can’t get enough of ambitious characters who put themselves through hell to be in the best possible position to gain what they desire. Luckily, I still found evidence of this serious nature in Sirscha’s world-weary yet determined perspective, and while it makes her seem a bit cold, her calculations and goals reminded me strongly of Jude from The Folk of the Air series. This is a major plus considering scheming, spy-in-training, power-hungry (here, acceptance-hungry) girls define my sexuality to a T. Said desperation for acceptance is the cause of multiple fumbles on Sirscha’s part, including a massive one that tees off the fantastically written conclusion. This might annoy some readers, be warned, but I enjoyed the slight break from her generally capable and focused personality.
Saengo is her best friend and a slight disappointment. I was super ready for some heart-rending female friendship, but alas, she’s relegated to the sidelines for the majority of the novel, so all we really get is Sirscha worrying about her. This led to a lack of buildup, which stunted my love for an otherwise kick-ass pair. Every time (there weren’t enough times!) they fought ~le bad guys~ together my shriveled heart grew two sizes. Saengo herself is not nearly developed enough, though she does have a bit of backstory, so I hope to get a lot more of her in the sequel. I see the potential for a lot of chemistry between Sirscha and Saengo, which I’m ecstatic for, though I was 100% expecting those bromantic moments to become romantic moments and was 100% disappointed, though I have to say a romance-less YA novel is 110% refreshing, so I’m not mad. There’s still hope for book 2 though!
Theyen is similarly lacking in development, and could’ve (see: should’ve) played a larger role in the novel, but it’s easy to love what we get. Theyen is the requisite pretentious, sarcastic, banter-inclined asshole with a heart of (fools?) gold we know and love. What I’d love to see is some moments of Theyen as a separate entity from Sirscha, because in Forest Of Souls we only get to see him in action while they’re together. I thought the development of Theyen and Sirscha’s relationship was a bit halting, mostly due to their intermittent contact throughout the novel, but I also have a theory that Theyen is a clown to everyone he considers friends, so from his end the progression actually makes sense. He’s definitely a potential love interest, which I am so down for, but whatever happens, I just hope their hateful repartee remains throughout the trilogy.
Meilik is very meh. I think he just isn’t interesting enough when only known on a surface level, so even though we know just as much if not more about him than we do about Theyen, I just can’t find it in myself to care about him. I have to assume that he’s being positioned as a love interest for Sirscha, unfortunately. Admittedly, I did like how he served as a connection between Sirscha and the Queen, and his confliction in family loyalty v.s. Loyalty to his people and I think he could turn out to be a lovely character, I just need more!
While I loved Sirscha and Theyen, they didn’t overshadow the plot or the worldbuilding. Sirscha’s journey takes the reader across a unique world that is split into warring factions, held at bay by an awful forest ruled and contained by a man called the Spider King. (I didn’t go into his character as I think he’s best left as a surprise, but I have to say I love what Lee did with his character). We learn plenty about the conflicts between the shamans, humans, and shadow wielders, which will definitely come into play in the next two books, which is great because we love political intrigue. We don’t get to the magic of the shamans in action very much, and the explanation of the magic system as a whole was a bit lackluster, but it’s definitely unique.
With regard to the writing style, Lee included very little dialogue, comparatively, and a lot of the book took place very much in Sirscha’s head, which was at once interesting and frustrating. One unequivocally great aspect to the writing was how vivid and immersive it was. I adored the descriptions of every new setting (though they, unfortunately, lacked in some areas, such as the monsters), especially the Dead Wood, of course.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Forest Of Souls, and I’d recommend it to lovers of YA Fantasy who are looking for some soft platonic relationships, a villain that’s actually terrifying, and an ambitious, capable heroine.