Are you tired of generic fantasy? Well, here’s a book that feels personal, a true expression of the author’s individual vision. The Guardian Forest, by Sandra Hunter, is a bit rough around the edges. To be honest, it could have used a pass by a good editor (or a writer’s group!). But despite that, the book’s language is so rich, and the characters and plot so heartfelt, even spiritual, that it’s hard not to forgive it a few typos or a bit of questionable comma usage. In fact, after finishing it, I checked Amazon to order the sequel promised in the backmatter, only to discover it’s not out yet. According to Sandra’s website, it’s “coming soon.” I definitely hope so!
Thera is fourteen years old at the start of The Guardian Forest, the only child of Duke Leon and Duchess Fideiya. As the book opens, Thera has just “joined” for the first time with a sea hawk. This joining allows her to see and feel everything the hawk perceives, and to influence the hawk’s actions to a degree. It is a gift sometimes given to those who have a connection to the Elanraigh Forest, and Thera has the strongest connection anyone has seen since her great-aunt passed away before Thera was born. After an afternoon spent joined with the hawk, Thera’s spirit returns to her own body, hidden in the bushes in her mother’s garden, and she awakens, much to the relief of her parents, her “Nan”, and the castle staff who’ve been looking for her everywhere.
It’s a tense time in the duchy of Allenholme, for the fishing fleet has spotted the black ships of the Memteth, the reptilian creatures who have not attacked in a generation. The first ships are just raiders testing Allenholme’s defenses, but everyone knows a larger fleet will follow. Cythia, the duchy to the south, may send a warship to aid Allenholme. To protect Allenholme, Duke Leon decides to look for friends outside the kingdom and ally with the Ttamarini, a horse-riding people from the plains beyond Elanraigh Forest.
The Ttamarini chief himself comes with a contingent of mounted warriors–including his eighteen-year-old son, Chamakin. Chamakin and Thera are instantly smitten with one another, and soon discover they both share a connection with the Elanraigh Forest. After a romantic night in the forest during which they kiss and realize they are meant to be together, they must part in the morning, for Duke Leon is sending Thera away in advance of the coming Memteth attack.
Thera’s destination is Elankeep, a cross between a fortress and an abbey on the far side of the forest run by her Aunt Keiris and defended by a troop of woman warriors whose job it is to protect Elankeep and Elanraigh Forest. On the way, Thera’s party is attacked by Memteth raiders and Nan and their two guards are killed. Thera lives only by fleeing into the forest. Will she make it to Elankeep safely? And once there, will she learn more about her connection to the forest and her joining abilities, and find a way to aid her family and country against the Memteth raiders? Perhaps just as importantly (to her), will she ever again see Chamakin, the young man she wishes to spend the rest of her life with?
One thing I really like about this book is the combination of peoples. The duchy of Allenholme (and as we learn later, Cythia as well) are quasi-medieval European in their dress, weaponry, and outlook, while the neighboring Ttamarini are like a Native American plains tribe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that combination before in a fantasy book, but it works well here. I especially like the mutually respectful relationship between Duke Leon and the Ttamarini chief Teckcharin. When the Duke was about Thera’s age, he took part in a raid with his friends to steal a fine Ttamarini horse, only to be captured and held for a couple months by Teckcharin. During his time with the Teckcharin’s tribe, Duke Leon came to admire their way of life and honest, straightforward way of dealing with others. Now, he trusts the Ttamarini more than the scheming neighbors to his south to whom he’s more closely related.
Another thing I like is Thera herself. Thera is plucky and resourceful, and though she doesn’t pay as much attention to combing her hair or her manners as her Nan would like, she is described early on as possessing a “wildflower beauty.” At times, she’s as impulsive as you’d expect for a girl her age, and this gets her in trouble more than once, but she’s also often thoughtful and always brave. She comes across as complicated and not always wise, but rapidly maturing into a truly formidable woman. My favorite parts of the book are when she joins with a sea hawk, later with a wolf, and in the climax of the story a… well, I won’t spoil the surprise.
I can recommend The Guardian Forest to any fantasy lover, of any age. The writing style is beautifully rich, the heroine immensely appealing, the plot fast-paced and full of surprising turns. And while it wouldn’t hurt if Sandra Hunter had an editor or grammatically-minded friend go through and help tighten up some of the comma usage in the dialogue tags and a few other points, I hope she doesn’t take too long because I am eager to read A Scourge of Shadows, the promised sequel, as soon as possible.