Some years ago, the hot thing to do in the Young Adult world was to write a trilogy. It seemed like everyone was churning out trilogies; some of them were amazing, some of them were ok, and some of them were not that great. Now it seems as though the popular trend is duologies, and I am a fan of this new trend! It’s much easier to keep up with a two-book series than a longer one, and sometimes you can tell, when reading the second or third book, that a series didn’t need to be that long. Elayne Audrey Becker agrees.
“As a reader, particularly nowadays – I’m gonna be honest – it’s rare for me to make it to a third book in a series just because, you know, the years go by, I’m doing a lot of things, it’s hard for me to remember what I read a couple of years ago,” said Elayne Audrey Becker a few weeks ago, when I spoke to her over the phone in regards to her debut YA fantasy novel, Forestborn.
“I planned for it to be a duology first and foremost because that seemed like the most fitting length for the story that I wanted to tell. I think also I just tend to prefer that prospect to the idea of writing a very long series, because, you know, it’s a lot of plot that you would have to stretch out and carry over. But also, I’ve been writing these characters for a really long time, so it’s nice to keep it sort of contained.”
Forestborn, as the first book in a duology, does a fantastic job of establishing the characters and the setting – particularly, for me at least, the setting. The book follows three characters – shapeshifting siblings Rora and Helos and Weslyn, the prince of their country – as they journey through a magical forest in search of a cure for a mysterious disease. The forest itself is almost a character on its own, which was a very interesting concept that reminded me of series like The Chronicles of Narnia or the Oz books. And that’s what Becker was going for.
“This is a very not-original thing to say,” Becker said when I asked if she had any outside inspirations when writing the series, “but Tolkien and Lord of the Rings was a huge influence for me in a couple of ways. I would say, first of all, the ‘there and back again’ adventure tale format I just used to be in love with growing up. And so that’s always been in the back of my head. But also something that I love about the worlds that he creates is not just the complexity to the different groups of people but also the way that he makes the land function as a character – or at least that’s my reading of that series.”
I definitely got a Tolkien vibe from the story, in particular the Giants, who reminded me very strongly of the Ents from Lord of the Rings. When I mentioned that, Becker got very excited.
“You know, what now seems patently absurd to me is that I literally never made that connection until you just said that! But I love me some Ents, so I’m really flattered. […] Thank you so much. I hope you meant that to be a compliment.”
But as important as the setting is in Forestborn, it’s the characters who make everything worthwhile. Rora, Helos, and Weslyn are a fantastic leading trio, each of them with flaws and secrets, and their relationship dynamics shift and develop throughout the story. Rora and Helos have a very loving but also dysfunctional relationship as they both deal with shared past trauma in different ways, and they are originally very antagonistic with Weslyn, who has done his level best to ignore them for the past several years.
“Readers have to have something that convinces them to stick around for 300+ pages,” Becker said when asked if she starts with characters, plot, or setting when writing. “Typically the characters [come first] – not fully formed, but certainly the idea of them. I sort of start with a sense of who the protagonist and who the other main characters are going to be – you know, what their emotional core is going to be like, the general kinds of challenges they’re going to face.”
She continued, “And then I go fill in the world and try to build a plot around them and then go back and revise all of them as each category becomes more complex. It’s definitely the characters for me. To me, as a reader and writer, I think that’s the most important thing for me – that people feel they can understand and empathize with the characters. But then also, just sort of, as a writer, that’s where my brain goes to first.”
It’s the antagonistic relationships that are always the most interesting, at least for me, and that shines in Forestborn as Rora and Helos navigate a tempestuous relationship with Weslyn. Enemies-to-lovers is one of my favorite fanfic tropes. Even though a lot of times it’s more rivals-to-lovers than true enemies, it doesn’t matter to me! I love the conflict, the bickering, the denial of feelings, the introspection, that comes with developing feelings for someone you dislike. If you’re a fan of enemies-to-lovers, you will love one of the romantic pairings that develop in this book.
“To me, it just made sense for who the two characters are as a people,” said Becker when I commented on the relationship (and told her what a fan of that trope I was), “but also [enemies-to-lovers] is my favorite, too, so you know. I would say it’s a combination. It felt right for who they are and it made sense for the circumstances they’re starting out in, but I wasn’t mad.”
Unfortunately, romantic relationships are not the only thing our poor characters are dealing with. Rora and Helos are magical beings in a world becoming increasingly less tolerant to magic, thanks to an ominous prophecy that just reads ‘two shifters death’ and may or may not be about the two of them.
“It was always important to me to write an inclusive world where there’s no discrimination or hierarchization based on sex, sexuality, gender, color of one’s skin – the kinds of things that unfortunately are challenges that people face in our real world,” said Becker. “I didn’t want to create this secondary world with these wholly original societies in which, for example, women are still second-class citizens. That what a thing that I knew going in.”
But there is still discrimination, and as our heroes get further along in the journey, they realize – and we the audience learn – that things are far worse than they knew.
“There are certainly parallels – unfortunately, more than one – to our real world,” said Becker. “And my intention was not to directly mirror any one of those real-life parallels. It’s more just, I think, an unfortunate convergence of realities that the ideas present in the book are still present in our world today.”
But that’s something we’ll get more of in the second book, which is scheduled to publish next year. Forestborn, while being a novel about a quest, is also primarily a novel about examining your prejudices, both against others and against yourself. “I would certainly hope that readers come away from the story both with an understanding for how to interact or engage in the world around them, but also – I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy – with themselves.”
Becker explained, “A lot of the heart of the book is not just a vision of striving towards acceptance and not making snap judgments or assumptions about other people or making them carry the weight of your own misinformed and problematic assumptions – by way of the prophecy in the book. But also about coming to terms with difficult aspects in your own personal history and learning, I think Rora says towards the end of the book, to live with the good and the bad and the idea that you have room in life for both and you don’t have to completely leave all of the darkness behind in order to move forward. It’s more of a balancing act.”
As I mentioned in my review, Forestborn has a great conversation about things like how being selfish isn’t always a bad thing and being selfless isn’t always a good trait. Rora deals with a lot of internalized guilt for something that happened when she and Helos were children, orphaned and trying to survive on their own. It’s something she has to face every day, because in this world, a shapeshifter can have up to three animal forms, but they cannot choose what form they take. One of Rora’s animals is related to the guilt, so it’s something she’ll carry for the rest of her life.
On that note, I had a bit of a philosophical question for Becker and asked her if she knew what animal forms she would have if she were a shifter.
“Here’s what I’ll say: in the book, as you know, the rules of the shapeshifting are they can’t choose which animal form they can shift into. Those forms just appear at a moment of greatest need. So I will say, if I were to continue those circumstances and apply them to my life, I probably would only have one form by now, which would be a vulture. And I’m not gonna say why, I’m just gonna let that be out there.”
She then went on the admit that if she got to pick her animal forms, she would choose a wolf, a peregrine falcon, and a house cat. She apologized for thinking too deeply about what she assumed I meant to be a fun question, but truthfully I agree that this is a question that requires some thought! It’s like deciding what your Hogwarts house is; you have to think about it.
And because I couldn’t resist, I had to ask a question that I knew would not get a straight answer. Because while Rora has already achieved her three animal forms before the events of Forestborn, Helos only has two, and I absolutely had to know if we’ll see him get his third form at some point.
“I will say, it is intentional that [Helos] only has two forms in book one, and by the end of the second book, readers should expect the story to be complete in every way. […] Character arcs and plot threads will wrap up by the end of the second book.”
I’d like to thank Elayne Audrey Becker once again for taking the time to speak with me (on a Friday in the middle of the day, when I’m sure there were other things we both should have been doing)! I encourage anyone who’s a fan of fantasy to check out Forestborn when it releases on August 31.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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