Forest of Souls is a lush YA fantasy that focuses on female friendship rather than romance

Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee. Image Courtesy Page Street Publishing
Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee. Image Courtesy Page Street Publishing /

Lori M. Lee’s Forest of Souls is a lush YA fantasy whose rich storytelling focuses on friendship and complex world-building rather than romance.

In the world of YA fantasy, we’ve all come to expect a few specific things – for every princess seeking her crown, or abandoned urchin learning to wield magic, there’s always a romance involved. Sometimes, more than one – after all, there’s a reason love triangles are so popular in this genre. But that’s part of the reason that Lori M. Lee’s Forest of Souls feels like such a breath of fresh air.

Instead of another story about who our heroine will ultimately love, this one is about friendship – the kind of BFF relationship that you’d sacrifice your life to save if you needed to. (Don’t get me wrong, I love a good love story as much as the next girl, but sometimes it’s nice to have options.)

That isn’t, of course, to say that Forest of Souls doesn’t have its own share of familiar tropes. It does, and some of them are very obvious. But, for the most part, the book does a great job of taking that well-trod ground and making the twists feel fresh.

The novel follows the story of Sirscha, an orphan who has spent most of her life training to be an elite assassin. But when her best friend Saengo is killed by a group of shaman spies (elemental magic users whose presence is forbidden in their kingdom), Sirscha somehow manages to bring her back to life. Surprise, it turns out Sirscha has not only secretly been shamanborn all her life, and many people she trusted must have known about it.

In fact, Sirscha isn’t just shamanborn, she’s one of the rarest breeds of shaman: A lightwender. A soulguide, specifically, meaning that she can help the souls of the dead pass over or, if she’s particularly emotionally motivated, return the recently deceased to their bodies and life.

The discovery of her true nature sets Sirscha off on an unexpected path, toward the mysterious Ronin the Spider King, a being who, for centuries has kept the feared Dead Wood at bay. This ancient forest is possessed by souls, and as a newly minted soulguide, Sirscha is asked to help tame them again, before their wild and unchecked growth can bring neighboring kingdoms to war.

Along the way, our heroine learns much about herself and discovers a heretofore unrealized sympathy for the shamanborn, who are so heavily persecuted in her own country by the very queen that Sirscha was so eager to serve. If she manages to harness her powers, what will her future look like? Is she a true savior of her people if, by the act of doing so, she virtually guarantees she can never go home? And what of Saengo, whose resurrection has tied her to her best friend in a complicated new way?

Forest of Souls spends a tremendous amount of time building up the complex world of Evewyn and its neighboring kingdoms, filling in the centuries-long conflict between them, and explaining how the shamanborn’s lives have become so difficult. It’s a rich, lush setting, with the sort of lived-in history and legacy that makes every aspect of the story come to life.

Sirscha and Saengo’s friendship is also given plenty of focus, and the novel takes the time to explain precisely how and why they’ve come to mean so much to each other. Their relationship is compelling enough that neither of them needs a love interest at this point in the story – they are each other’s soulmates, in a way that is rarely explored in books like this. Nor does the novel shy away from the way that Saengo’s resurrection complicates things between them, which also a fairly refreshing change.

Sirscha’s journey is equally well written, as we watch her struggle to be taken seriously and feel respected in a world that looks down upon her for coming from nothing. Her story is one of worth, and it’s extremely satisfying to watch her slowly realize that she has much more value than simply what she can do for others – either as a spy, an assassin, or a magical soulguide.

The final third of the book is full of twists and turns, ending in a twisty cliffhanger that promises the next book in this series may turn out to be an even wilder ride than this one. (Honestly, I had prepared myself to talk about how this book pulls its punches for a bit, and then I got to the story’s last act and, well. It doesn’t. Let’s just say that.)

Forest of Souls will make a refreshing addition to any YA fantasy fan’s TBR pile, simply because it dedicates itself so thoroughly to bucking expectations. Though as a story it contains many familiar pieces, it combines them all in such a way that they feel fresh and new all over again. Can’t wait to see where this story goes from here.

Next. Anna Bright’s The Boundless is a satisfying conclusion to a sparkling, surprising story. dark

Forest of Souls is available now. Are you planning to add it to your to-read list?