A red panda shaman confronts a villainous brown bear and his clan with the help of new friends and elementals from the spirit realm in this debut YA fantasy novel.
Bears populate a Far East-like world of the past in this series opener. At its center is Saraynea, an orphaned female red panda. An untrained shaman, she has the ability to manipulate the elements of fire, earth, air, and water. Saraynea is relentlessly pursued through forests and icy mountains by an evil clan led by brown bear Darkstorm, another shaman, who wants to use her as a means to harness and corrupt the power of magical beings in and outside of the spirit realm. Journeying toward her final confrontation with Darkstorm, Saraynea accumulates a cadre of female friends to help: a shy monk, a fierce warrior, a hunter, a mage and her sister, and a turncoat “shadow priestess” named Kheiryn. The priestess has a potent bond of “dark magic, so strong that shadow energy” emits from her back, which she keeps “in the form of black wings.” In addition, Saraynea’s “guardian spirit” turns out to be a formidable lion, whose jaws can shatter a warrior’s blade. The inventive story clearly reflects the author’s stated influences (zoology, anime, and video games), showing the female characters’ insecurities and growing closeness—scenes depicting the latter deliver a good deal of the book’s charm—and offering numerous fierce battles, lavishly detailed with martial arts action, arrows, swords, and magic. The bear characters (clad in robes, armor, and other garb) are believable in both their human attributes and their beastly qualities (paws, fangs, fur). But flaws in execution detract from the vivid world of Pluchino’s creation. Errors include a confusion of pronouns, repeated use of the same word within a single paragraph (“Fear rushed….The rush of thoughts….She rushed”), awkward phrasing, and run-on sentences (“Achamaru was happy to see her starting to feel better since they found her while Ayumei excitedly listened to Saraynea’s stories of how she would play with the spirits when she was a cub as well as when she met her spirit guardian”). Abrupt time shifts, too, undermine urgency and consistency. But the ending’s lighthearted resolution, setting up the bear friends for romance and adventures to come, is unexpectedly touching.
Imagination aplenty, but this rousing animal tale needs some refinement.