Forest of Souls is Gates of Thread and Stone author Lori M. Lee’s new YA Fantasy with a magical system inspired by Hmong shamanism. It follows Sirscha Ashwyn, a young orphan who is training to be the Queen’s spy in a country where shamanism is banned. The tentative peace between the three main nations is kept by the elusive Spider King, a legendary shaman who rules over the Dead Wood and keeps its lethal magic at bay. Sirscha is ultimately derailed from her chosen path in life when she accidentally binds herself to the dying soul of her best friend Saengo and learns about her shamanic heritage.
In the words of the author, “Thematically, Forest of Souls is about fighting to belong against every effort to push you out. It’s about loyalty driven by insecurity and searching for self worth. It’s about unconditional female friendship. It’s also about a spy-in-training whose chosen path is upended, landing her under the scrutiny of a Spider King.”
“Danger makes you deadly. She’d misunderstood. It had never been danger. It was fear.”
I first heard about Forest of Souls when the first chapter and cover was revealed (and what a cover it is!), since then I’ve been eager to read it in its entirety so I was elated when I was sent an eARC. However, I ultimately ended up being on the fence about it. Because even though I loved more than a few elements of the story, after the first half I kind of slogged through it. So I think I’ll start by listing things I enjoyed about Forest of Souls, because I read some 2 and 3-star reviews that really get into where this books falls short and explained it better than I can. Here we go:
- Sirscha and Saengo’s friendship
Saengo and Sirscha become close friends at school and Saengo is beside Sirscha’s side in whatever trouble she finds herself in. Later on, they form a much different bond in the form of shaman-familiar when Sirscha accidentally restores Saengo to life using her dormant shaman abilities. I always enjoy meaningful female friendships in books and Forest of Souls carries it to the forefront. However, I did wish Saengo played a more active role as the plot progressed and not just stay in the sidelines.
- No romance in Book 1
There is no romance in Forest of Souls, although it sets the groundwork for a possible romantic arc in the coming books since it was announced that it will be a trilogy. I think, on top of all the strings the plot was trying to hold together, it would be hard to keep track of a fast-moving romantic subplot so I thought that worked well.
- Shaman-inspired world-building and Spinner’s End
I think it would be more compelling if it didn’t attempt to cramp in all the world-building and go into the whole world and focused more on the Dead Wood and Spinner’s End, which I enjoyed much more. I found the section that takes place in Spinner’s End and the Dead Wood really interesting, with the forest’s restless souls appearing as sinister rotting trees that can coil all over around you.
Sirscha as a main character fell sort of flat, which is not a good sign for the secondary characters who were at times also similarly dull, except maybe Theyen who provided some very good one-liners with his dry humor.
All in all, I really wish I enjoyed this more. I felt reluctant to write this review because it incorporates all the things I love in a fantasy and in different circumstances it could really succeed in being, but whether it’s because it didn’t deliver on some personal expectations that I didn’t even realize or because I wasn’t in the right mood for it, ultimately it didn’t work.
Forest of Souls is hitting shelves on June 23rd. Thank you to Page Street for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.