River Secrets by Shannon Hale
The whole of Bayern is ill at ease when its king and queen decide to send a delegation to Tira, a rival nation that attempted to conquer Bayern the previous year. The losses incurred in that campaign’s final battle, most as the result of a Bayern fire speaker, have only fueled tensions between the two countries. No place is more dangerous for Bayerns to travel than the Tiran capital Ingridan, but King Geric and Queen Isi are convinced that a diplomatic mission is necessary to avert further conflicts. River Secrets is the story of one young Bayern, Razo of the Forest, and his role in securing peace with Tira.
When Captain Talone announces the twenty men selected for the ambassador's guard, Razo is astonished that a substandard soldier like himself has been chosen to be part of the elite group. While he is a member of Bayern’s Own, the king's personal fighting force, he is probably its most incompetent member. Regardless, Razo relishes the chance to be a part of the adventure and to keep an eye on his friend Enna, the fire speaker who puts herself at personal risk by joining the delegation.
Facing pressure from its citizens, the Tiran assembly has agreed to a fall vote on whether to go to war with Bayern, leaving the ambassador only a few months to convince them otherwise. When burned bodies start to appear - seemingly placed to incriminate the Bayern delegation - the group realizes just how impossible their mission is. In addition to convincing the Tiran assembly to vote against war, they must figure out the mystery of the burned bodies without implicating themselves.
The tense political situation between the Tira and Bayern is handled masterfully. Throughout the novel, Hale is able to balance the two competing fantasy cultures, highlighting their differences and similarities, and in the process saying some profound things about both their world and ours. One such profundity comes early in the novel from the mouth of Queen Isi: "It's easy to believe that complete strangers are your enemies" (18).
River Secrets is well-plotted, mixing action, mystery, and romance in just the right combination to perfectly satisfy readers. Hale's writing is lyrical, her characters enchanting. A page-turning adventure, River Secrets is also a touching coming-of-age story. At the beginning of the novel, seventeen-year-old Razo is insecure. Still reeling from the loss of his first love to another man, he can't see beyond his obvious failures to the unique talents that he does possess. It is only when Razo is able to see himself through the eyes of others that he begins to realize his potential. Young adults - especially those going through an awkward phase themselves - will have no problem relating to the novel's endearing protagonist.
Although this book does follow Hale’s The Goose Girl (2003) and Enna Burning (2004) - Razo is a secondary character in those two novels - it does stand alone. While many fantasy enthusiasts will want to immerse themselves in Hale's fully-realized world by reading all three novels, knowledge of the earlier books is not necessary to enjoy River Secrets.
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