When a spy-in-training discovers she has magical powers, she’s forced onto a dangerous path to save her closest friend.
Forest of Souls, the first novel in Lori M. Lee’s Shamanborn duology, introduces a world influenced by medieval fantasy and the Hmong belief that spirits are responsible for what happens to you. Lee was born in Laos and relocated to the United States as a toddler, so her latest novel blends unique elements from multiple cultures.
“When I began writing this as a NaNoWriMo manuscript way back in 2014, I didn’t realize then that it would become the sort of book I needed growing up as part of the Asian diaspora,” Lee says. “Even as I fell in love with the medieval-ish fantasy genre, I felt painfully excluded from it. So this book features Asian-coded characters being warriors and shamans, queens and mentors, villains and friends, all within a secondary world fantasy.”
Here’s the scoop on the novel from the publisher:
Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing, but she’s intent on becoming something. After years of training to become the queen’s next royal spy, her plans are derailed when shamans attack and kill her best friend Saengo.
And then Sirscha, somehow, restores Saengo to life.
Unveiled as the first lightwender in living memory, Sirscha is summoned to the domain of the Spider King. For centuries, he has used his influence over the Dead Wood—an ancient forest possessed by souls—to enforce peace between the kingdoms. Now, with the trees growing wild and untamed, only a lightwender can restrain them. As war looms, Sirscha must master her newly awakened abilities before the trees shatter the brittle peace, or worse, claim Saengo, the friend she would die for.
Page Street Publishing will release Forest of Souls on June 23, 2020. But you can get an exclusive first look today at an excerpt and the cover, which was designed by Laura Benton and illustrated by Charlie Bowater. You might recognize Bowater’s gorgeous art from another fantasy book cover we revealed this year.
If you love the excerpt below, you’ll want to pre-order it here. We know June is a long way off, so we recommend reading Lee’s Gates of Thread and Stone series while you wait for Forest of Souls.
The earth is black with last night’s rain—a perfect morning for shadows.
When I arrive at my mentor’s tower door, my damp gloves barely brush the heavy wood before it flies open. Its half dozen locks jangle and clack noisily. For a blind woman whose eyes are always concealed behind a scarf, Kendara’s face can convey an impressive amount of disdain.
“Sirscha Ashwyn, you thoughtless dolt,” she says, her voice low and gravelly. “Took you long enough.” She used to speak more gently when I was younger. Maybe that’s why the sound of it still makes me smile, even when she’s insulting me.
“I was only gone for an hour,” I say, shutting the door behind me.
Kendara snorts as she returns to the chair by the open balcony. There’s a white circle painted into the floor of the balcony, large enough to fit two battling opponents. I’ve earned more wounds than I can count in that circle, but this tower is the ideal place to conduct our training, high away from the watchful eyes of the palace. A dagger lies on the seat of her chair, and she picks it up as smoothly as if she can see. Sitting, she tests the blade’s edge with the thick pad of her thumb.
To a stranger, she is a woman descending into old age, her hair gone white save for a few stubborn streaks of black. Age spots speckle the deep bronze of her skin, which is a couple of shades darker than my own. But she is far from infirm. The dagger she handles and the weapons that hang from her wall aren’t decorative. She is the queen’s Shadow, and for the past four years, my secret mentor.
“Would have taken me half the time,” she grumbles, reaching for the whetstone that rests on the floor. “And without the need to show off.”
My nose wrinkles as I remove my gloves. Opening my satchel, I dig inside for the banner I appropriated from the city’s southern watchtower. I may have also waved at the tower guards while scaling the walls.
“I wasn’t showing off.” I’ve learned to stop being surprised—and to stop denying—when Kendara knows things she has no business knowing. “I was just having a bit of fun.”
“The Shadow does not reveal herself for any reason. What would be the point, then?”
I hold out the banner. “I’m not Shadow yet,” I say with an emphasis on yet and the hope that she’ll take the hint.
“And you won’t be if you keep behaving like a compulsive twit.” The whetstone clatters to the floor as she snatches the banner out of my hand. She stalks across the room, weaving neatly around a table, and flings the silver moon of Evewyn into the flames of her hearth.
“What are you doing, you daft hag?” I shout, dashing after her.
The flames take a second to catch, the banner still damp from the rain. But quickly enough, fire sears through the thin fabric, sparking blue from the spidersilk threads of the moon. Dark smoke billows up the chimney. The smell singes my nostrils, and I try to wave it away, toward the open balcony.
“Idiot girl,” Kendara mumbles as she sets down the dagger. She opens a cupboard that hangs skewed on the wall. “I don’t want that thing in here.” Cursing me under her breath, she rummages through the cupboard’s overflowing contents.
I glance back at the hearth and the ruined remains of the banner. Grudgingly, I see her point. Once, Evewyn’s banners had flown a white falcon clutching a branch of plum blossoms. But when the queen succeeded the throne eight years ago, she changed the emblem to a silver moon, the symbol of the Pale Twin, harbinger of ill fortune.
“Then why did you send me to retrieve it?” I ask. Smoke lingers in the room, a dingy haze that stings my eyes and tickles my throat. Kendara is still preoccupied, so I move toward the balcony where the air is clearer.
From this height, the capital of Vos Talwyn is an enormous sprawl of stone, statues, and curling green rooftops. Beyond the city’s walls, the land extends south like lush brocade stitched with the golden threads of morning. A shadowy ribbon against the horizon draws my eye eastward. Even from this distance, a shiver slithers down my spine. The Dead Wood mars the eastern border like the puckered, blackened edges of burnt fabric.
“I told you to steal the banner from the watchtower,” Kendara says, drawing my attention again. I return to sit near the hearth as she withdraws something small from the cupboard. “I didn’t tell you to bring it to me.”
“Well, now I can’t even put it back,” I say, but our bickering is forgotten when she places a bracelet on the table before me. With a quick glance at Kendara, who nods to confirm that I can touch it, I trace my finger along the designs carved into the jewelry. The smooth texture glistens like white jade. “What is it made of?”
My finger stills on the bracelet. Intrigued, I lean in closer to examine it. The bracelet can’t be thicker than the width of my little finger. “I would’ve thought troll bone would be bigger.”
Kendara grunts, a noise I’ve come to recognize as scorn for my imagined ignorance. She has a wide array of such sounds.
Lifting the bracelet, I turn it toward the sunlight that streams in through the open balcony and diffuses into the smoky air. The polished surface gives off a beautiful sheen, and the color transitions from a warm butter to the burnt yellow of old parchment. The jeweler etched a curling design into the bone that lends it an elegant quality. A metal fastener fashioned to look like tiny lotus petals allows a section of the bone to be removed so that the bracelet can be worn. It’s lovely but somewhat grotesque, given its origin.
“For you,” she says.
I almost drop the bracelet. But I recover quickly, clutching the troll bone in my fist. “I…um. Thank you. It’s very…thoughtful.” I narrow my eyes. “And unusual. Why are you giving me this?”
Kendara is many things, but thoughtful is not one of them. It’s part of what I admire about her. She never pretends to be anything other than who she is.
She turns away, but not before I notice the slight purse of her mouth. It’s not a smile—Kendara does not smile—but sometimes the muscles around her mouth spasm and twitch, like she’s trying to imitate the motions. It’s just as well. An actual smile might break her face.
“Trolls are slow creatures but wickedly strong,” she says. So I’m to decipher the bracelet’s purpose on my own. “Anyone with the misfortune to be caught by one isn’t likely to survive long enough to speak of it.”
“But you speak as if from experience.” I pop open the segment of bone fastened to the metal lotus and fit the jewelry around my wrist before snapping the piece back in place. I barely feel
“I’ve had a great many experiences, none of which are any of your business.” Kendara flits restlessly around the workroom, returning vials of unknown substances into cupboards and books to shelves.
“Fortunately, you’re not likely to encounter any trolls in Evewyn. Nor anywhere else in Thiy. The last colony died out some time after the shamans claimed the eastern lands for their own.”
How old must the bone be if no living troll has existed in Thiy for nearly a thousand years? It must be extremely rare as well. “I suppose that means you’re not sending me out to bring you a fresh rib for a matching necklace.”
“Trolls were known to be highly resistant to magic,” she says, completely ignoring me. Another of her many talents.
Although I’ve no idea what use she has for books, I’ve read every volume she’s crammed into her numerous shelves. I recall a passage that explained how the remains of powerful creatures, such as trolls, retain certain magical properties that the creatures possessed when they were alive. Shamans often fashioned the bones of such creatures into objects like this bracelet. But not
“It’s a talisman,” I say, twisting the bracelet around my wrist. It’s still cool, despite that it should have warmed from my body heat.
Depending on the creature a talisman is made from, the bones not only protect against outside magic but dampen one’s own magic as well. Or amplify and change it. Those sorts of talismans are rare.
But a troll’s bone? “Protection against magic.” My smile broadens and my heart sings with a longing bordering on desperation. “Will I need such protection?”
Has the moment I’ve longed for these past four years finally arrived? Will she at last name me as her apprentice?
“Most of you do,” she mutters. I mentally curse at the way I flinch—not only for the implied insult that I should need protection beyond my own abilities but also for the reminder that I am not her only pupil. The knowledge—the fear—that I could so easily lose all I’ve worked for to some other nameless competitor is never far from my thoughts.
Kendara scratches at the bottom of her handkerchief. For all that she’s taught me, she’s revealed almost nothing about her past. I don’t know if she has family, where she grew up, if Kendara is her real name, or even what the upper half of her face looks like.
But I’ve come to know her in other ways. Although she demands the respect and honor owed to her as my elder, she loathes mindless obedience. She encourages my curiosity even as she insults my intelligence. She constantly challenges my limits, but only ever within the parameters of her rules.
Her fierce independence and abrasive honesty are what first convinced me to trust her those years ago, qualities that would have offended others but to me were admirable. Something to aspire toward.
In the four years I’ve been her pupil, her training has been harsh and unforgiving. I’ve stolen fruit from the queen’s orchards. I’ve been shackled and dropped into a flooded well. I’ve crept through a den of sleeping rock scorpions with bells woven in my hair.
Every assignment tested my skill and my resolve. After all, a Shadow is tasked with whispering to the queen the secrets of allies and enemies alike, and with quietly extinguishing any powerful opponents. Kendara has never underestimated me. She is one of the few people who do not equate my upbringing with my worth. And when I am the queen’s Shadow, who I was will matter less than nothing compared to who I will become.
“I heard you’re to accompany the hatchlets to the Valley of Cranes today.” Her lip curls. It isn’t the first time she’s expressed disgust with the prison. While I agree with her, I’m not bold enough to say so. It would mean criticizing the queen, and no one except Kendara would dare.
So I only say, “I am.”
She makes a shooing gesture. “Get going. They’ve already gathered in the Company yard.”
The disappointment strikes swift and brutal, as all her blows do. I’ve less than a month in the Company before graduation, before the Royal Army ships me off to who-knows-where. Less than a month to prove to Kendara that I deserve to remain here and to study as her official apprentice. Every day that passes without her decision is a kick to the gut.
Swallowing back the protests that crowd my throat, I push to my feet, my braid swinging against my back. I tug the sleeve of my gray uniform over the bracelet and ask, “Where did you even get this?”
Kendara retrieves her dagger and whetstone from the floor, but rather than reclaim her seat by the balcony doors, she settles into a rocking chair before the fireplace. “A Shadow must keep her secrets.”
“But all of them today. Now get out, witless child.” She sits so close to the hearth that I worry she’ll catch fire. But she seems to cow even the flames, which don’t dare do more than lick at her toes.
My steps are silent as I cross the room. A single creak of the floorboards, and she won’t call me back for days. In her presence, to be anything less than what she has made me would be an insult.
“Thank you for the gift.” I reach for the door, scratched and marred by the heavy locks. Before leaving, I grin and toss over my shoulder, “Ill-tempered crone.”