Bearskin is the charming debut novel by Jamie Robyn Wood. This young-adult fantasy follows the plight of two sets of siblings and is told from their various perspectives. Crown Prince Conrad and his stepsiblings, Moiria and Heppson, are faced with their mother’s witchcraft and attempts to create discord within the family. In contrast, sisters Heart and Lark live a sheltered existence in the woods. All of them are affected by the actions of the evil queen, and must make choices about how they react to her schemes.
The theme of choices runs throughout the novel. Moiria, the Queen’s daughter from a previous marriage, must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she be loyal to her mother out of fear, or her brothers out of love? Her choice in turn sets her brothers as well as Lark and Heart, on quests of their own, which will also require many tough decisions. Moiria’s path in particular emphasized this point. As she tried to help her brothers, she felt as though her choices were forcing her down an increasingly narrow path. In the end, however, she comes to realize that it is never too late to change course. I appreciate the emphasis placed on agency, whatever our circumstances.
I also really enjoyed reading a book about siblings. In real life, our siblings are the people who know us the longest. Our brothers and sisters play an important role in our lives from day one. Considering it is such a formative relationship, it seems like there is a dearth of literature exploring it. This book, however, deals with the jealousies, rivalries, and loyalties that come along with being a brother or sister. The storyline with Heart and Lark was particularly effective. The book begins with Lark (the older of the two) taking care of Heart after their mother dies in childbirth. When a handsome stranger comes along and wins Lark’s heart, Heart is conflicted. She feels glad that her sister is happy, but is also jealous, and worries that her sister will leave her alone. Eventually, Lark is the one who needs to be cared for and Heart’s loyalty to her sister wins the day. And in the end, all of the siblings in this story end up saving each other. This aspect of the story really resonated with me. My own sibling relationships have been very important to me. The bond that ties brothers and sisters together is strong indeed.
Along the same lines, the families in this book are dynamic and complex. There are half- and step- siblings, step-parents, grandparents as primary caregivers, and friends-adopted-as-family. It is refreshing to see diversity in family structure represented. And, as a feminist, I was very pleased that so many of the relationships explored featured women and were not romantic in nature. I mean, it is a fairy tale so there are some elements of romance. But those relationships served to round the female characters out, and were only one aspect of the story. The women were three dimensional and complex; romantic entanglements were neither ignored, nor the sole focus of the story.
While I enjoyed the book a great deal, I will add that there were a lot of story lines to follow. As a result, the 273 pages of the novel did not provide enough space to flesh them out as much as my greedy brain would have liked. All of the characters were interesting and dynamic. I wanted to know more; I wanted more in-depth character development. There were also lots of different fantasy elements; there were trickster spirits, woodland guardians, witches, curses, etc. Though they were all nicely connected, I again felt the story was strong enough that that aspect of the novel could have been simplified.
All in all, this was a delightful book. I would recommend it if you are looking for a gift for the pre- or early teenager in your life. There are some excellent female role models that will appeal to both boys and girls. Bearskin also touches on many themes that are relevant to the target age group.
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