Saturday, January 2, 2016

Review: Spirit Animals Book 1: Wild Born, by Brandon Mull

While definitely aimed at the middle school/young adult audience, with its animal themes and Pokemon-like creature bonding (though without catching them all), Spirit Animals has a surprisingly mature story and complex characters. Brandon Mull tells his story through alternating perspectives and gives each character enough depth and personality that they are actually compelling. Most young adult authors don't take such care to develop even their main character that it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between those in stories using alternating perspectives (I'm looking at you, Veronica Roth). What this does is makes the story a much more engaging read not just for the young adult audience, but an adult audience as well. While what eventually unfolds is your usual young adult adventure fare, this was a story I found difficult to put down.

In the world of Spirit Animals, people have a chance to bond with a spirit animal once they hit a certain age, about 11. It could be any kind of animal, or, what nobody wants, no bond may be made. The animal appears from nothingness, perhaps the spiritual world, and becomes attached to the person who summoned it. This story line certainly has a strong appeal. Everyone craves a bond that will forever attach them to another being, but especially with an animal that has the capability of unconditional love. And boys and girls alike can have fun imagining what sort of animal would be their spirit animal, whether a cute and cuddly creature, or a large and powerful one.

The story centers around four characters, who are all gradually introduced. Conor is but a lowly servant, but when he summons a wolf as his spirit animal, suddenly his station in life grows. Abeke, too, is from a poor family, where there has been a severe drought, and she is shamed when her secret hunt of an antelope leads her into trouble with her father for leaving the safety of the community. She, though, summons a leopard and brings rain to her community. Meilin, of the four the only one from a wealthy family, is trained in martial arts, something her nation called Zhong does not usually allow women to do. She hopes she will summon a spirit animal who can enhance her abilities, but is disappointed to find she has summoned a panda bear. Anyone who has watched Kung Fu Panda will realize she should not underestimate her spirit animal. Last is Rollan, an orphan boy jailed for aiding a robbery, though he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. In his jail cell, he is discovered to be of age and given a nectar to test if he has a spirit animal bond, and he summons a falcon.

What these four have in common is that they have summoned the four fallen beasts, which are the only four of the 13 Great Beasts to have been killed. These four don't have the power of their Great status yet, but the fact these beasts have been summoned at around the same time means that something big is about to happen. I won't reveal anything more, but as you probably might guess, something evil has arisen that only the power of these Great Beasts can stop.

Brandon Mull writes his story with only as much detail as is needed. The world-building is second to plot and character development, and the main characters seem to be learning about the mysteries of the Spirit Animal world at the same time as the readers. Aimed at a younger audience, this is probably the most effective way to approach the material. The series that I can think most closely relates to this one is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. In that series, boys and girls also attempt to bond with another being, a dragon. The difference is that they can see the dragons before the bond happens. If you like McCaffrey's more detailed world-building, you may be disappointed with the less-detailed approach of Mull, but I assume more details will come up in later books.

Part of what makes this fun is that just because the animal has bonded with the human does not mean the relationship between the two is perfect. The humans must learn to get along with their bonded animals, and this bond is a bit more complex than it seem. For example, one test of the bond is if the human can get the animal into its passive state, which turns the animal into a tattoo on any part of the person's body. This, though, does not necessarily indicate a strong bond. Meilin, for example, gets her panda into its passive state quicker than any of the boys, but her disappointment over the natural passivity of the animal impedes her connection with the animal in other ways, such as in utilizing the powers it grants her as a person. The personalities of each animal also affects their bonds. Rollan is very frustrated with his falcon because of how distant it is, but perhaps an animal like a falcon needs a human who is able to understand its need for such distance, rather than a human who needs lots of attention.

While the spirit animals seem to take a nod to Pokemon, in that the animals fight one another and bond with their human, there are also elements of animes such as Dragonball Z and Naruto, in that the main characters are capable of great powers and of increasing their powers through training and through stronger bonds with their spirit animals. The novel teases the reader with the potential for these moments, just as those animes also tease their viewers, and one can see the potential for excitement as the main characters increase their powers with their bonded animals. We see this sort of power mostly from already trained individuals, such as Tarik, whose bond with his otter gives him surprising speed, and Abeke, who most fully, of the main four, bonds with her animal.

The novel grows at its weakest when it reaches the inevitable battle at the end, though it invests enough in the characters and world to make us care about the outcome and even about characters who might die. There's even some mystery, leaving some questions at the end about who to truly trust. Book One tells the reader enough detail to map out where the series will go and sates our thirst enough to make us want to read more. My concern is that this series utilizes the approach of a different author per book. Mull has done such a great job that I worry another author might not be able to match his ability. Maggie Stiefvater, another author I've heard of but haven't read, wrote Book Two (and I admit, the preview I read of Book Two does make me eager to read it). Regardless of how good the series will turn out to be, Wild Born is a very entertaining story that both adults and teenagers can enjoy, due to the quality of writing and character development, and a unique and cool world Mull has helped create.

***Note: This is free on iBooks.***

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