Super Series Saturday: Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale

Saturday, April 28, 2012

I first started reading the Books of Bayern about five years ago, when one of my roommates lent The Goose Girl to me over Christmas break, telling me it was her favorite book. And while I lukewarmly enjoyed it, it definitely wasn't the right book for me at that time. However, since then, I have seen so much love for the Books of Bayern that I decided to give them a second try, and I am glad I did.

The Goose Girl
Anidori Isilee is being shipped off to Bayern to marry the prince -- a huge disappointment because she spent her life believing that she would be the queen of her own country, Kildenree, despite her shyness and her family's concern over her "eccentricities" -- an ability to communicate with animals. However, on the way to Bayern, her smooth-talking, cunning lady-in-waiting, Selia, pulls a surprise attack and leaves with Anidori's troop, planning on impersonating her and becoming queen herself. Anidori is left to find her own way to survive, and she does -- by seeking employment at the castle as a goose girl. Going by her middle name of Isilee (or Isi), she searches for a way to find love and get Selia out of her rightful place.

The Goose Girl is somewhat of a slow-moving book, but Shannon Hale's writing is beautiful and the images are powerful. I think I was possibly expecting more action when I read it the first time, but this time I was more able to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of Isi's story, as well as delving deeper into the layers of complexity that I rushed past on my first reading. Isi is a character of incredible grace and strength, as is further revealed in the story, and her love story is sweet, if slightly predictable. While The Goose Girl didn't become one of my favorite books during my second reading, I gained a much greater appreciation for it.

Enna Burning
Isi's best friend, Enna, is a forest girl. She works in the city to send money back home. However, one day Enna's brother brings home a strange fragment of paper and begins practicing strange skills. As his skill increases, he threatens Enna, but for some reason she can't keep herself away from the parchment and begins learning how to create fire herself. As Bayern moves into a war with Tira, Enna must decide if using her fire power is worth the danger it presents.

Enna Burning had much more action than The Goose Girl, which is fitting, because Enna as a character is much more fiery and volatile. With the dangers of the war pressing on Enna, she is forced to make difficult decisions, not only about her outward actions but about the way that her newly acquired powers will affect her own life. She is also presented with difficult choices to make about love -- there is Finn, one of Isi's first friends, who always seems to throw her off balance, but she also meets another mysterious stranger that seems to fit perfectly into her life. Enna Burning also presents an interesting dilemma, because in The Goose Girl we only see the positive aspects of the elemental speaking powers that Isi possesses; in Enna Burning we learn that there are negative aspects as well. Enna Burning is a powerful sequel to The Goose Girl and was actually much more enjoyable for me.

River Secrets
While the war with Tira has ended, the tensions certainly haven't, and the atmosphere is tense as select members of Bayern's own (as well as Enna) are sent into the heart of Tira for diplomatic discussions. Razo, one of Isi and Enna's friends from working at the castle, is uncertain why he was chosen -- despite his unwavering loyalty, he is known as the worst swordsman in Bayern's own and is very short, which leads him to be frequently mocked. However, as he spends time in Tira, Razo is one of the only people to notice that burned bodies are appearing in unlikely places. He also finds himself entangled with Dasha, a beautiful girl with hair a color he has never seen before that he is not sure if he can trust.

River Secrets was my least favorite of The Books of Bayern. While I understood Shannon Hale's reasoning in telling the story from Razo's point of view rather than Dasha's (because all the narrators have been connected in all of the books, and Dasha would have entered in as a stranger), it didn't feel as natural being in Razo's head for me. He felt somewhat stilted and immature. The immaturity factor may be because he is a boy and younger than Enna and Isi, but it didn't quite work for me. I also felt disappointed that I didn't know Dasha as well as the other girls with elemental powers. I know part of the intrigue of the story is finding out exactly what Dasha is up to and the mystery she presents, but I would have preferred to have more time inside of her head. River Secrets isn't a bad book, but it did less for me than the other Books of Bayern.

Forest Born
The last Book of Bayern is about Rin, Razo's little sister. Rin has lived her entire life in the Forest, and she works incessantly at being good, the type of daughter that her mother would be proud of. She stifles her instincts to do wrong and keeps quiet. However, during one of Razo's infrequent visits from the city, Rin feels suffocated and decides to leave and find work at the castle for a change of scenery. Working as a lady's maid for Isi, Rin finds herself entangled in what appears to be a negative situation among some of Isi's maids and enthralled by the women she calls "the fire sisters" -- Isi, Enna, and Dasha. However, when a bizarre circumstance throws Rin on an unexpected journey with the fire sisters, she realizes that stifling herself may not be the best way to be a good person.

This was my favorite of all the Books of Bayern. I felt that I could relate to Rin so well in many ways. This girl doubted every single word that she said. She felt the need to be perfect, and punished herself endlessly for all of her mistakes. She felt completely bound by her circumstances, and even leaving her home in the Forest wasn't enough to set her free. I think more than any of the other characters, Rin had to go through a very deep and intrapersonal growth experience. While she admires and spends time with the fire sisters, she never completely interacts with them; most of her journey is internal. All of the other books have love stories, but Rin's story is more about learning to love herself. However, while that may sound as if the book was less exciting than others, that wasn't the case. Rin's growth is moving, powerful, and relatable, and framing that growth is a series of exciting and unexpected events. While Rin was more quiet and introspective than other characters, she was still swept up in a huge adventure.

Overall, these books are sweet and enjoyable. At times they move slowly, but the writing is beautiful and the characters are lovable. I really wish I had read these books when I was younger because the fairy tale setting would have absolutely entranced me ten or twelve years ago (it was still entrancing, but not in that magical way of when you are younger). If you are looking for a sweet, gentle, and lovely group of stories, The Books of Bayern will not disappoint.

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