Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Enna Burning, a Book Review

Enna Burning is the second book in the Bayern fantasy series of Shannon Hale, Newbery Honor-wining author of Princess Academy. I haven't read The Goose Girl, which is the first Bayern book, but part of what I wanted to learn from reading this one is how to handle a sequel so that it's accessible to those who haven't read the first book while not being repetitive for those who have. Hale manages this partly by focusing on a new protagonist, Enna, a forest girl who befriended the goose girl Isa (now queen) from the first book.

Enna has returned to live in the forest with her brother Leifer after the death of their mother, but she's restless for life in the larger world. Then Leifer discovers an ancient vellum telling him how to summon and control fire, and the need to burn begins to consume him. When Bayern is invaded by its neighbor Tira, Leifer's skills turn the tide of battle, but he dies in the fire. In mourning for her brother, Enna succumbs to the temptation to read the vellum herself. Soon she finds that fire is an uncontrollable addiction. Enna becomes secretive and obsessed as she breaks promises to herself, makes bigger fires, more often, and even begins to burn people alive -- all the while telling herself she's only doing what's right for Bayern.

This book has lovely descriptions and likable, complex characters. As Enna changes, so do those around her: gentle Finn becomes tougher and more manly; Queen Isa suffers from the effects of her own wind-calling power. And then there's the charismatic Tiran captain, Sileph, who captures Enna and uses drugs, loving words, and persuasion to seduce her toward despair and treason.

A great strength of Enna Burning is the freshenss of its sensory detail and the beauty of its descriptive language. The crunch of snow underfoot sounds like rodents munching; Enna's hand, as she creeps up to a Tiran camp, becomes numb touching the frosty ground. The descriptions of Enna's interactions with fire are frightening and convincing.

A novelist has to master time and space, persuading the reader she is always in control. Here Hale fares a little less well. Time in the first half of the book, especially once Enna begins her burning, moves slowly and rather aimlessly. She burns some Tiran tents; time passes; she goes out again. Meanwhile everybody else holds war councils. Clunky transitions occur: "Enna turned her back on the south and followed Isi inside to prepare for a war council, one of many that autumn." Just that suddenly, we move from a scene that reached no real conclusion to more distant narration eliding a long span of time. The same disproportion, though this is a quibble, appears in the map at the front of the book. We're told that the forest is two days' journey from the capital, while to reach the desert land of Yasid takes two months; the map shows the two distances as not that different from one another.

Once Enna falls captive in the Tiran camp, the narration picks up speed. A prisoner, unable to act for herself, Enna undergoes a fierce moral struggle. For the reader, watching Enna struggle against and succumb to Sileph's blandishments makes for painful suspense. Then, after scenes of escape and war that would serve as climax for another book, we move into a long journey to Yasid in search of healing. The resolution, while a little too neat, reaffirms the value of deep and enduring friendship.

This is a tough book, with its harrowing portrayal of addictive need and debasement. Most disturbing of all is the fact that Enna burns a lot of people alive. For some reason, even though readings expect that a fantasy may show killing in war, this grisly kind of killing, and the fact that the heroine embraces it, makes the story unusually dark. Perhaps readers will receive a good reminder that war is never all that purely heroic. Nor is the mayhem sprung on the reader without warning. Hale gives a fair taste of what's to come in the two-page prologue, which shows a fire-witch fleeing through the forest from the destruction and murder she has caused. Shannon Hale never promised us a story that was all flowers and light.

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