Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Books of Bayern

The characterizations and interactions of Shannon Hale’s four female protagonists is what make her Books of Bayern so delightful to read.   Isi, Enna, Dasha and Rinna are very different characters. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. But one thing they all have in common is that you do not want to be on the opposite side of them in a fight.
The Books of Bayern take place in the fictional country of Bayern and its four surrounding neighbors, Kildenree, Yazid, Tira and Kel. In these places there are some people born with unique speaking talents. There are animal-speakers who can speak to animals (obviously). This is a fairly innocuous gift. Helps if you’re herding the kind of animal you can speak to. Otherwise, who cares? There are nature-speakers who can speak to and influence the elements. These people are in danger of being overwhelmed by their talent. There are people-speakers who can read others and manipulate their speech to control them. These people are dangerous to everyone else.   Let’s meet our girls, who (you guessed it) possess some of these talents: 


Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee is the crown princess of Kildenree until her mother decides to marry her off to the Prince of Bayern and make her brother the heir instead. Ani has always felt inferior to her mother’s greatness. As a child she spent a great deal of time with her aunt who had the ability to speak to birds. She taught Ani this skill but she was forbidden to use it by her mother.   Halfway to the capital city of Bayern Ani’s lady in waiting, Selia (a people-speaker), convinces half the guard to rise in revolt so that she can continue on and pretend to be the princess. They kill most of the other guards and Ani barely escapes with her life. She seeks shelter with a family in the forest and then goes to the capital where she becomes Isi, a forest dweller who looks after the king’s geese. While working she makes friends. She becomes close to a man she thinks is a guard named Geric (you get a cookie if you can figure out who he really is). As she works, Isi realizes she has the gift of wind-speech and practices talking to and influencing the wind daily. She does little to regain her stolen name or place as her many insecurities make her feel she doesn’t deserve to be a future queen. When Isi discovers Selia is trying to push Bayern and Kildenree into war with each other (because it would be mighty inconvenient for her if any of Princess Anidori’s siblings came to visit) she realizes that she is the only person who can intervene. Isi finds her strength, gains the help of her new friends and goes to face Selia and her greatest fears. This is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale. 
After helping her best friend Isi defeat Selia and bring new respect to the forest born, Enna returns to the forest but she is discontent. She wants more from her life, her brother is acting strangely and changes are occurring in her relationship with her longtime friend, Finn. When war breaks out between Bayern and the neighboring country of Tira, Enna goes with the army to keep Isi company. It is discovered that Enna’s brother has discovered fire-speech and he uses this talent in battle but ends up dying in the process. Enna finds his instructions and learns the skill herself. Taking her friends, Razo and Finn, with her Enna begins burning tents and supplies of the opposing army. Realizing that she is in danger Isi, who is becoming overwhelmed by her own wind-speaking ability, tries to confront and help her. Caught up in the excitement of what she is doing Enna is angry at Isi and becomes more reckless until she is captured by the enemy. Eventually, with the help of a daring act of Isi, Enna is able to escape and assist the Bayern army in the war. But she is haunted by what she does and is afraid her fire-speaking will overpower her. In an attempt to save her life she and Isi embark on a journey to the country of Yazid in hopes of finding balance for their powers so they might live in peace.
Note: I have been morbidly afraid of fires since I was seven and this book gave me nightmares.

There is now a tentative peace between Bayern and Tira. The two countries are sending each other ambassadors and Bayern’s Own have been chosen to accompany the new ambassador as a guard. This means Enna, Finn and Razo are on a new adventure. This book is told from Razo’s point of view and it is interesting having the male perspective this time around. Razo is short and not as talented at sword fighting as Finn. His greatest talent is as a prankster and comedian. He excels with his sling-shot but doesn’t see this as particularly useful. He can’t figure out why he was chosen for this mission. As the Bayern contingent arrives in Tira, strange fires begin breaking out. With the memory of what Enna did during the war fresh, it is clear someone is trying to restart hostilities between the two countries. As Razo’s natural good humor allows him to befriend people of any station and nationality he begins a campaign to discover the culprit and avoid another war. To help in this he becomes friends with the daughter of the Tiran Ambassador to Bayern, Dasha. Dasha is outgoing and bubbly but it is clear she is hiding a secret of her own.   As Razo and Dasha grow closer, they must use their combined talents to avert a war and maintain peace.
This one is my favorite:

 Rinna has lived all her life in her mother’s shadow. She feels she has a deep darkness insider her she must fight at all costs so she buries herself and reflects other people in how she behaves. Growing up her only solace is found in the forest of her home. From the trees she gains a sense of peace and rightness. When she is 15 she does something that confirms her worst fears of herself. When she seeks solace from her trees she finds that they have shut her out. Robbed of her only comfort, Rin only wants to escape. When her brother, Razo, and his girlfriend, Dasha, suggest she return to the capital with them Rin decides to go. At the palace she becomes a lady in waiting to the Queen. The Queen likes her, insisting that when they are alone she call her Isi, and Rin finds herself mostly taking care of the two year old prince. Rumors of disquiet are coming from the border of Bayern and Kel. When the King is injured by a mysterious fire that seems to come from nowhere while investigating, Rin accompanies the party from the palace that travels to meet him. Knowing they are dealing with fire-speakers Isi, Enna and Dasha (whom Rin has labeled the Fire Sisters in her mind) set out to discover who is behind these problems. Rin follows them and is included in their journey. She is fascinated by these girls and their abilities with wind, fire and water. When they are captured by the Queen of Kel Rin must come to grips with the truth about her own powers and decide whether or not to use them.

Shannon Hale’s world building skills are excellent. Each country has its own culture, customs, modes of dress and traditions. The reader learns these through living them as the characters do.
The characters are real and, despite their talents, not at all of the super hero type. They have strengths and flaws that balance in equal measure like all of us. Each book is told in first person and the book reflects its narrator. While reading them you get a sense of the narrator through the story. The Goose Girl , like Isi,  is sweet and romantic but not at all insipid and has a core of strength. Enna Burning, like Enna, leaves the reader feeling restless and flames (ha!ha!) toward the dramatic. River Secrets, like Razo (and Dasha too), is funny and constantly moving. Forest Born, like Rinna, is reflective and contemplative. All four of the girls are strong and don’t back down from fights. Yet, they also maintain their femininity and do not devolve into the girl warrior stereotype. Geric, Finn and Razo all recognize their girls have useful skills and strengths. They support them and protect them without devolving into the possessive over protective male stereotype.

These books do an excellent job of reflecting what true friendship and sisterhood between girls can be.  Isi and Enna' friendship is particularly amazing in its loyalty and forgiveness.  It is fun to read as Enna and Dasha, who enjoy annoying each other, share a vastly different type of friendship.  And Isi plays a mentor/older sister type role for Rinna, who desperately needs her guidance.  The relationships between the girls are as different as the girls themselves but all of them beautifully rendered.

I like the relationships of all three couples. Like the people in them, they are all different ,and evolve in different ways.  I have to say Razo and Dasha are my favorite. At times the romance gets a little too cutesy (looking at you here, Enna and Finn).   The relationships develop over the course of the four books (Isi and Geric go from falling in love to having a toddler) and this is interesting to watch. The fourth book does not contain a new romance, which I liked. Rin had a lot of issues to sort out and had no clear idea of who she was as a person. A relationship for her would have been dangerous. And I liked how she realizes this but also expresses the desire for a closeness of that kind. This is something most readers, particularly the target teenage girl audience, can identify with. There was more than enough of the other three couples together in the fourth book to make up for Rin’s lack of a love life. 

While the story concludes well in Forest Born and left me satisfied, I wouldn’t mind if Ms. Hale wanted to add another installment. I would love to read more of Rin’s story, especially. And I love Razo and Dasha.

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