Every once in awhile I invite guest contributors to review for Raise Them Righteous. This review of Laurel Wanrow’s Guardian of the Pines is by Sean Farrell, a lecturer of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. I hope this won’t be his last contribution!
YA fantasy can sometimes feel a bit same-y: a chosen one goes on a quest and defeats a great evil, perhaps finding love along the way. Laurel Wanrow, in Guardian of the Pines, inverts or flat-out ignores many of these familiar tropes, leading to a unique fantasy adventure that feels like a breath of fresh air.
The story takes place in a world where witches and wizards use magic to heal the earth and promote biodiversity. Cor, a young wizard from a noble family, is determined to find his place without using his father’s name. When he saves a young witch named Fern, Heir to the Witch of the Meadows, from a pack of bullies, he seizes on the opportunity to request an apprenticeship on her island, the gorgeous sanctuary of Giuthas. Needless to say, things do not go exactly as planned, and Cor will have to prove himself to the tight-knit community at the same time as he navigates his feelings for Oyster, another young wizard on the island.
Again, this is not quite typical YA fantasy. There are some magic duels, but they’re mostly the result of teens not dealing with their emotions properly. There is a romance, but it’s between two men, one of whom struggles to tell others about who he really is. There’s even a mythical sword – but instead of cutting people down, it’s used to encourage growth in trees. Wanrow’s insistence that community and balance lead to growth applies equally well to trees and people, meaning that theme, plot, and character development are all remarkably well-integrated.
In particular, Cor’s race and sexuality are admirably front-and-center. Rather than making these incidental facets of his character, they are integral to how he perceives the world (and how others perceive him). Teens struggling to talk to others about their sexuality will find much that is relatable about Cor’s journey, and may even be motivated by the strong case Wanrow makes for honesty and openness as prerequisites to reaching one’s full potential.
Although there is much to recommend, I will also confess some confusion about the world and characters in the early going. Guardian of the Pines is the second in Wanrow’s Windborne series, and exposition catching us up is not always graceful or even particularly illuminating. Cor is also an occasionally frustrating protagonist, seeming to always do the thing that will piss the most people off. Still, the world is interesting, and Cor’s journey is a unique one in YA fantasy. Guardian of the Pines comes recommended for teen readers looking for something a little different.