Have you ever struggled to express your ideas in words, while others seem to speak with such ease and authority? Have you ever set out to do something good and brave, then found yourself in over your head, struggling just to survive? If so, you’ll find good company in Isi and Enna, heroines of the first two novels in Shannon Hale’s four-part Books of Bayern series.
I always enjoy Hale’s novels, because her characters have real character. Each of her heroes and heroines have their flaws, but they all display courageous hearts, loyalty to their friends, and a desire to do what is right, no matter the cost.
As in Robin McKinley’s classic fantasy novels, Hale matches strong heroines with worthy heroes. Her romances are founded on solid friendships that gradually deepen and develop, and they add depth to the plot without swallowing the entire narrative. In addition, her female protagonists have a good femininity to them. They are lovely from the inside out, and while far from weak and helpless, they’re refreshingly free of the cattiness and anger that other teenage literary heroines exhibit.
The Goose Girl: A Princess in Disguise
Princess Anidori Isilee (“Isi”) of the kingdom of Kildenree is very different from most teenage literary heroines–and I love her for it. Introverted and shy, she desperately wants to prove herself a worthy future ruler of her people. But unlike her queen mother–or her handmaid Selia–Isi lacks the gift of people-speech: the near-magical ability to sway others with her words. No one seems to notice or care that Isi possesses a gift of her own: the ability to speak with animals.
In a diplomatic effort to get this strange, quiet daughter off her hands, the queen secures a marriage arrangement between Isi and the crown prince of Bayern, a kingdom to the north. Isi is uneasy about marriage to a man she’s never met, but her anxiety turns to terror when her handmaid Selia and a band of henchmen stage a vicious coup along the road to Bayern, killing Isi’s guards, stealing everything of value, and attempting to murder Isi herself.
Isi resolutely travels to Bayern on her own–only to discover that Selia has arrived before her, posing as the true princess, and that Selia’s cronies are under orders to kill her on sight. With no proof left but her own word, Isi disguises herself and takes a job tending the palace geese until she can find a way to set things right.
Isi soon finds loyal companions among the other animal workers. She also befriends a kind young man who often rides out to her pastures, and whom she assumes is a palace guard. She grows in courage and confidence, and discovers that she has another gift as well: the ability to speak with the wind, to gather it up and direct it. It’s tempting to stay in hiding, enjoying her newfound talents, free from royal responsibility and marriage to a stranger. But Selia’s treachery soon threatens ruin for the entire kingdom of Kildenree, and it’s up to Isi to save her people from destruction. Perhaps Geric, the young man from the palace, will believe her story…
Enna Burning: The Kingdom of Bayern in Jeopardy
Enna Burning, the second installment in Hale’s Books of Bayern, features Isi’s best friend Enna. The two girls met during Isi’s time as a palace goose-herder: Enna was another animal keeper, with chickens under her charge. In many ways, Enna appears to be the complete opposite of her friend. Isi is fair-haired and blue-eyed; Enna’s hair and eyes are dark. Isi is thoughtful and reserved; Enna likes to speak her mind. But both young women share a passion for justice, and a deep commitment to the people and ideals they hold dear.
Enna Burning picks up about a year after The Goose Girl ends. Bayern is under attack from the southern kingdom of Tira, and Enna is desperate to play her part in the war–to do something that matters. From an old parchment, she learns the secret language of fire: how to grasp heat from living things, transmute it into flame and send it blazing into a target.
The ability to fire-speak makes Enna feel alive, special, powerful. She begins stealing out on secret missions, setting off small fires in the enemy camp. But her secret gift soon grows beyond her ability to contain it. With every burning, Enna craves more. Every other person and purpose in her life pales in comparison, including her loyal friend Finn, who has been like a brother to her since childhood.
Then Enna falls prey to enemy soldiers, who try to use her powers against her own countrymen. Enna feels like a failure; she’s convinced that she’ll never find peace and forgiveness.
But her best friend Isi isn’t about to give up on her…
Coming next month: A review of Books of Bayern 3 and 4, “River Secrets” and “Forest Born”!