Until recently, I had not been introduced to the works of Shannon Hale, though her book Princess Academy is a Newberry Honor award winner, and Goose Girl comes highly recommended from basically everyone who has read it.
Though embarrassingly late to the party, I finally decided to give Ms. Hale’s books a read for myself, easing into her work with The Book of A Thousand Days. And I really liked it! So, with Young Adult Appreciation Month, what better time to finally read Ms. Hale’s beloved Bayern Books?
I took the plunge…and Holy squawking geese Batman! I loved them.
The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale (Retelling), Young Adult
Series: Currently 3 books, with a fourth on the way. Though each of the books are connected by the same characters and chronological, each can arguably be read as a stand alone novel.
The Goose Girl (Book 1)
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: August 2003 (original)
Paperback: 400 pages
The Goose Girl is a retelling of the German fairy tale collected by the brothers Grimm about a kind princess who is betrothed to a prince in a distant kingdom. On the long journey to her bridegroom’s kingdom, the princess is tricked by her handmaid and forced to switch places with her. The true princess becomes a goose girl, and must abide her time until she is saved from her wretched fate.
In Shannon Hale’s retelling, the story of Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee (Ani, for short), the Crown Princess of Kildenree uses the same basic components of the Goose Girl fable, but with more magic, drama and a far stronger princess than the original. Ani is born different than her brothers and sisters in Kildenree – she possesses the strange gift of animal-speech, encouraged by her aunt, the Queen’s sister. As Ani grows, however, and her strange talents become known to the court, the Queen is horrified and outraged – she banishes her sister from Ani’s presence, and forbids her daughter from ever using her gift. And so, Ani grows up in a world where she never really can be herself. All her life she tries to live up to her charismatic, powerful mother’s example, and as the Crown Princess due to inherit the throne of Kildenree one day, Ani struggles with the insurmountable weight of expectations. When she turns sixteen, however, her world is dashed to pieces. Her father, the King of Kildenree and the only person besides her lost aunt who truly understood Ani, is killed in an accident and then the Queen breaks some harsh news to the grieving princess – instead of taking the throne of Kildenree as her birthright, she is being shipped away to the fierce neighboring kingdom of Bayern to wed their prince in a gesture of peace and continued goodwill. Ani is crushed, but performs her duty and makes to leave Kildenree forever for a strange new land, with only her horse Falada (whom she can talk to), her handmaid Selia, and a small group of armed men as her escort. As the procession nears Bayern, however, Selia’s true nature emerges as she reveals her plan to usurp Ani’s identity as the princess, and seize power for herself. Those soldiers loyal to Ani are slaughtered by Selia’s men in the escort – for Selia possesses the dangerous magic of people-speech, and is able to convince and bend people to her will – and Ani is barely able to escape with her life. Alone and without any friends, money or proof that she is in fact the princess, Ani sneaks into Bayern and changes her name to Isi (for her grandmother) and becomes the goose girl in the King’s stables. Befriending the other workers – misfits in the Bayern city as forest-born folk, discriminated against by the city-born – Isi lives a quiet life, finally and gradually becoming comfortable in her own skin and realizing the power and importance of her gift of animal-speech. Isi bides her time, but soon is thrust back into action to set things right as Selia’s thirst for power has yet to be quenched, and the fate of Kildenree and Bayern lies in the balance.
Goose Girl is a beautiful coming of age tale, filled with magic and self-discovery. Ms. Hale manages to take a brief, fairly well-known fable and weaves an impressive, lush story that is completely irresistible. Told from the third person but with insight to the princess’s thoughts, Goose Girl succeeds the most in Ani’s introspective journey and growth as a character. As the book begins, Princess Ani is meek, uncertain and trying to live up to her mother’s model – and it takes her losing everything before she finally discovers herself, and becomes the brave, kind Isi, and the rightful Princess of Bayern. Instead of waiting for her Prince Charming to save her, Isi uses the strength she discovers from her months of work with the geese, and her friendships and acceptance of those forest born to right the horrible wrongs Selia has wrought. The transformation is gradual and organic – Ms. Hale never preaches, but allows this parable of self-understanding evolve naturally, through the author’s own gift for language. All of the characters in this book, from the calculating Selia to the fiesty Enna (whom we will see in the next book), are vibrant, layered creatures and truly come to life on the page.
Also, I was impressed with Ms. Hale’s worldbuilding skills in Goose Girl. The political machinations of Kildenree and Bayern, especially with the split between the Bayern forest born peasants and the elitist city folk, are finely written. Similarly, Ms. Hale’s take on magic, with the power of different types of language are beautifully conceived – Isi’s gifts are wondrous indeed. Finally, there is the romantic element to the story in the love story between Isi and the handsome yet awkward Geric. Suffice to say, the manner in which the romance unfolds is all very convenient, but this is a fairy tale after all! I cannot complain.
I fell in love with Isi and The Goose Girl from first sight. This is one of the finest, most imaginative and yet loyal retellings I have ever read, and I highly recommend it. An absolutely stunning, luscious novel.
Verdict: 9 Damn Near Perfection
Enna Burning (Book 2)
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: September 2004 (original)
Paperback: 336 pages
“Why aren’t you playing?” said Ani, gesturing to the many games of cards and sticks around the room.
“Oh, the fire,” said Enna. Its orange fingers waved specters on the blacks of Enna’s eyes. “I get to looking and can’t look away. Don’t you ever feel like fire is a friendly thing? That it’s signaling to you with its flames, offering something?”
Ani watched not the fire but the play of its light on Enna’s face and felt comfort that there were others who listened for language in what was supposed to be mute and to seek out meaning in what was only beautiful.
~ The Goose Girl
From this short scene, Shannon Hale decided to write the second Bayern Book, Enna Burning. Though I (ever so slightly!) preferred the quiet, fairy-tale feel of The Goose Girl, the fierce, powerful and violent Enna Burning is a beautiful book in its own right.
This time around, Enna, Isi’s best friend from her days as the goose girl, is the heroine of the tale. Two years after the events of The Goose Girl, Enna finds herself back in the forests of Bayern after her mother’s death. Though she is happy, Enna yearns for adventure outside of her sheltered home. Her best friend Isi has single-handedly regained her throne and her identity, given the forest born a place of honor in the King’s army, and deflected a war between Kildenree and Bayern – and Enna knows that her destiny will too be something great, beyond the quiet and simple life of the forest. Things begin to shift as Enna’s older brother Leifer returns home with a peculiar piece of vellum, and starts displaying some erratic behavior. Leifer has suddenly discovered the gift of fire-speech and is able to create flames from air. The gift is not without its consequences though, as he grows more distant and unpredictable, and Leifer refuses to tell Enna how his powers came to be. At the same time, Bayern is provoked into war by the fierce kingdom to the east, Tira. The King’s army is already assembled at the eastern border, but Geric and Isi call for Bayern’s Own, the forest born contingent, to assemble and join in the battle – and together Leifer, the quiet but dependable Finn, and Enna go together to fight. In battle, however, Leifer’s power bursts forth to destroy the attacking Tirans, but the flames also consume Leifer. Heartbroken, Enna desperately tries to understand the source of Leifer’s demise, and against Isi’s advice she reads Leifer’s vellum…and Enna too becomes gifted with the power of flame. But the power comes at a terrible price, as Enna soon discovers. Isi’s wind-speech already is overwhelming her, and Enna’s power over fire threatens to devour her whole. Together, both Isi and Enna must discover balance, before their powerful gifts consume them.
Enna Burning is a completely different type of story than its predecessor. While The Goose Girl was a retelling, Enna Burning is wholly Ms. Hale’s own. Unlike Isi’s quiet and careful strength, Enna is headstrong, fiery and passionate. The two heroines are as disparate as…well, fire and wind. And while Isi’s journey in The Goose Girl is more introspective and about self-acceptance, Enna’s struggles are far more dangerous in its intensity – with her gift for fire-speech, Enna is excited to use her power first by burning tents and outposts, but eventually culminating in killing hundreds Tirans in battle. The horrors that Isi faced at Selia’s hands are nothing compared to the horrors that Enna has to face with her own fire-possessed actions – and it is in this difference that Enna Burning really shines. I loved Enna every bit as much as I loved Isi, if in a different way. I also loved the friendship between these two characters, especially in the last few chapters. What’s more, I loved Ms. Hale’s shift of narrative focus here, so even characters we had met in The Goose Girl are completely different in Enna Burning – Finn, in particular. Speaking of Finn, on the romance front, Enna Burning totally kicks butt. Finn, the quiet, dependable friend that Enna never took seriously shows up in this novel in a big way, changing readers’ perceptions of the character as Enna’s perception of her childhood friend changes too. It’s a lovely, heart-warming (hoho! Lame puns abound!) romance.
Enna Burning also takes the world Ms. Hale creates in The Goose Girl and expands on it significantly, adding in the two new regions of Tira and Yasid. The political ties, the people and cultures in each land are delightfully different from each other, with Tira descended from the same lineage as the Bayern and Kildenree, but the Yasidians speaking a completely different language. Also, the magic in Ms. Hale’s universe expands here with fire-speech as a gift that can be learned, and the importance of balance is introduced.
I found myself amazed by the difference between The Goose Girl and Enna Burning, but I loved this second Bayern Book just as I loved the first. Well-written, impressively imagined, and with a fiery, stubborn heroine, Enna Burning is another keeper.
Rating: 8 Excellent
River Secrets (Book 3)
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: September 2006 (original)
Paperback: 320 pages
River Secrets picks up where Enna Burning leaves off, following the dramatic conclusion of the war between Bayern and Tira. Attempting to negotiate a peace with a resentful Tira, King Geric and Queen Isi decide on welcoming Tiran ambassadors to Bayern, while sending their own ambassador and a small group of soldiers to Tira as a show of goodwill. Geric’s cousin is the ambassador, and with her travels Talone (loyal soldier who stood by Isi in her darkest hours from Goose Girl) and some of the finest of Bayern’s Own. But Razo never suspects that he will be headed to Tira with his best friends Finn and Enna – though he is a good scout and provides comic relief for all those he’s around, he’s not much of a soldier. Talone has a special mission for Razo, a challenge that will use all of Razo’s wit – for though the short prankster is not much with a sword or in a fight, his powers of recollection and ability to make anyone feel comfortable is unparalleled. While Razo works his spy skills in Tira, the ambassador and envoy are in some serious trouble when a string of burned bodies turn up near their accommodations – someone is murdering Tirans and trying to pass it off as Bayern aggression, in hopes of provoking war once more. At the same time Manifest Tira, a group of political extremists, strike out with a string of assassination attempts on the Bayern envoy. Razo has to work quickly to uncover the mystery of the murders for the future of Bayern and Tira.
As with Enna Burning, River Secrets is a completely different animal than its predecessor. While Enna Burning was a book that spanned different regions, the tragedy of war, and the strength of friendship, River Secrets is a bit political spy thriller; a mystery in a mysterious land. And, as with the books before it, River Secrets works. It’s not as reflective or magical as The Goose Girl, nor as high stakes as Enna Burning, but River Secrets is a fine novel in its own quirky way. And a lot of that is because of Razo.
Ah Razo, Razo, Razo. A trickster that no one seems to take seriously in the first two books though he is good friends with both Isi and Enna, Razo gets his own adventure in this novel – his own chance to shine as an unconventional hero. And Razo has to be one of my favorite characters in all of Bayern. The boy is hilarious – he knows he isn’t much of a fighter and he has no trouble owning up to that fact, running away from fights and letting Enna and Finn take care of business. Not that Razo’s a coward – in fact, his big mouth gets the best of him a number of times – but he’s a joker, not a fighter (except when it comes to a slingshot). I loved his awkward interactions especially with the pastry girls in Tira, and especially with the Tiran ambassador’s daughter, the equally awkward Lady Dasha – who has a magical gift of her own, like Isi and Enna before her. Razo’s sense of humor, his sharp wit and his energy are what make River Secretsso delightful as a novel.
Though it lacks the magic of The Goose Girl or the pathos of Enna Burning, River Secrets is a charming, light-hearted read with a memorable hero unlike any other in the Books of Bayern.
Rating: 7 Very Good
Verdict: If you couldn’t tell, I loved the Books of Bayern – and I highly recommend them all (though if pressed, I’d have to say The Goose Girl is my clear favorite of the three).
And I absolutely cannot wait for the fourth book in the series, titled Forest Born!
Rin is sure that something is wrong with her…something really bad. Something that is keeping her from feeling at home in the Forest homestead where she’s lived all her life. Something that is keeping her from trusting herself with anyone at all. When her brother Razo returns from the city for a visit, she accompanies him to the palace, hoping that she can find peace away from home. But war has come to Bayern again, and Rin is compelled to join the queen and her closest allies—magical girls Rin thinks of as the Fire Sisters—as they venture into the Forest toward Kel, the land where someone seems to want them all dead. Many beloved Bayern characters reappear in this story, but it is Rin’s own journey of discovering how to balance the good and the bad in herself that drives this compelling adventure.
Once again, Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale brings readers to a world where great friendships, unexpected plot twists, and a little dose of magic make for incredible storytelling.
Forest Born is in stores September 15th – so you have ample time to get caught up if you haven’t yet read this series!
I, for one, cannot wait.