Forest Born is Shannon Hale's most recent addition to what is now being called her Books of Bayern series. What started out as a complex and imaginative retelling of the lesser known fairy tale, The Goose Girl, has spread to four novels featuring selected characters from the original story and their supernatural gifts. Forest Born is different from the other stories in that it features a young girl who wasn't part of the original tale. Rin is the younger sister of Razo (who received his own story in River Secrets, the third Bayern book), and as with the other forest born characters we've met so far, she finds herself leaving the forest and moving to the city where she experiences some defining coming-of-age moments.
The reader quickly discovers that Rin has a special gift -- that of tree-speaking -- which is expected in these tales of people-speaking, wind-speaking, fire-speaking, and so on. It takes Rin a little while to realize this, and causes her some grief because for some reason the trees have seemed to turn against her. Anytime she tries to communicate with them she is filled with such loathing and rejection that she decides to flee the forest and see what the future will hold for her in Bayern's capital.
There she becomes a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Ani/Isi from The Goose Girl. Rin helps care for Isi's young son, and develops a great amount of respect for Isi and her friends, Enna and Dasha. When the three "Fire Sisters" leave to investigate some mysterious burnings near the border, Rin secretly follows. As she grows to know these women better, and as they band together to face a secret enemy, she also begins to face her own self-doubt and desire to know who she really is. That means solving the mystery of her personal conflict with the trees, and coming to terms with another gift she possesses -- a dangerous one that can destroy her and all she loves.
It was a good story, and well-written as all of Hale's work is, but it wasn't my favorite of the four by any means. It was hard to really connect with Rin, since she spends most of her time observing rather than participating in many of the interactions with the Fire Sisters. But there's a reason for that, and Hale does do justice to the psychological and interpersonal issues she explores. It was fun to see so many characters from the earlier books and continue to follow their stories. There is action and suspense and drama, though it didn't feel quite as fresh and intense as in the first two books, The Goose Girl and Enna Burning (my two personal favorites). So worth reading if you've enjoyed the others, though not necessarily worth raving about. I do have to mention that reading it right after finishing Avalon High gave me an intellectual sigh of relief. I'll pick up a Hale over a Cabot any day!
Okay, and one more thing that bugs. I loved the stylized artwork they used for the cover art of the first three books. But when they printed them in paperback, they switched to some cheesy model photos (my mom aptly described them as "seductive American Girl"). Bad enough to do that to the paperbacks, but whatever. Until they also used that style for the hardback printing of Forest Born, and now it sticks out like a sore thumb against the other three books in my collection. I much prefer the classy style of the first three and wish they had kept it up for continuity. Lame.