Rora and her brother, Helos, are shape-shifters who fled their home in the Western Vale and have been living in the kingdom of Telyan. There, Helos works as a healer while Rora uses her shape-shifting abilities to spy for King Gerar. Although she has earned a place at court, Rora has found acclimating to Telyan difficult because of tensions between magical and non-magical people.
When a deadly sickness spreads throughout the kingdom and the king’s younger son, Finley, is infected, King Gerar sends Rora, Helos and Weslyn, his oldest son and heir, back to the Vale in the hopes of bartering for a cure. It’s a mission fraught with dangerous beasts, poisonous plants and vicious political skirmishes that comes to a crescendo when Rora discovers that one of Telyan’s neighboring kingdoms is vying for war.
Debut author Elayne Audrey Becker’s Forestborn is an ambitious fantasy novel that explores themes of identity, otherness and belonging. Rora’s ability to transform into animals as well as into other people means that she is never quite comfortable in her own skin, especially when she encounters those who harbor prejudices against shape-shifters. And although Rora and Helos are safe within Telyan, the same isn’t true for magical beings in other kingdoms, who are subject to cruel imprisonment, experimentation and expulsion.
Although political exposition initially weighs down the action, the novel soon moves at an exciting clip as Rora and her companions trip out on hallucinatory dew, meet wizened old giants and escape one dangerous situation after another. Becker has a light touch with the story’s romances: Rora and Weslyn’s shared experiences draw them close, and Helos longs to return to Finley with a cure.
While Becker satisfyingly resolves her characters’ arcs, readers who prefer standalone novels should know that Forestborn ends on a cliffhanger. They’ll need to wait for the sequel to discover whether Rora and her companions’ deeper struggle for their very existence will succeed.