I am a foolish mortal.* When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it. The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake. Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out! She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite! Exclamation point! Heart symbol! ❤ But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).
Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet. Then I can write a more balanced critical review later. With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.
If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days. Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:
Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.
Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, before.
At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.
Until one day, he does…
As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough? (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy. Little, Brown.)
So, a list. Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:
- Beautiful writing. It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books. They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters. That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep. The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled. The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing. The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition. Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
- The characters are complex. Even the bad faeries. Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones? Pretty darn tired. Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed. These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though. In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.) The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it. And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too. Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it? Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king? And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either. No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain. And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
- Strong sibling and family bonds! There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another. Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults. This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality. Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home. Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world. When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity. It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact. The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord. The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
- Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre. When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view. I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed. (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.) The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town. The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment. Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion. Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book. Not that I would expect anything else.
- Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines! What?? That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation. Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases). Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored. Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
- Wild and dizzying faerie revels. They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint. Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish. That’s the faerie land I know and love. More, please, Holly Black! Your books keep getting better and better.
Do you like faerie stories? Buy this book. Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters? Buy this book. Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see? Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book. Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes? Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book. THIS BOOK, FOLKS. I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.
Five very obvious stars.
*Definitely foolish. Other parts of that statement are under debate.