The Darkest Part of the Forest: A fairy-tale remix with a touch of realism

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black fantasy book reviewsThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Once upon a time, in a town called Fairfold, Holly Black set her story for her stand-alone novel The Darkest Part of the Forest. The dark faerie-tale fuses the fantastical with the mundane, as humans and Fae folk exist alongside one another, the faeries even being a huge source of tourism for the little town. That is an original and intriguing premise if there ever was one, with promises of dark twists and turns. But somewhere along the lines the plot failed in its execution, and a book that began as compelling, seemed to lose its magic.

The story opens in the forest, where a high school party is in full swing. Drunken teenagers lounge against the glass casket of a sleeping Prince with horns and pointed ears. One such teenager is Hazel. Angsty and brooding, Hazel doesn’t like the part of her that keeps kissing all the boys and leading them nowhere, but she can’t help herself. On the night of the party, she kisses her brother Ben’s best friend, Jack, and flees worried that she’s damaged the relationship for good. But there are bigger problems on the horizon.

The next day, Hazel and her Brother Ben hear that the glass casket of the sleeping faerie prince has been shattered, the prince vanished. Hazel and Ben have both been in love with the prince for as long as they can remember. What’s more, back when they were children, Hazel and Ben used to hunt wicked Fae, Ben enchanting them with his music and Hazel slaying them with her sword. They haven’t hunted Fae for as long as Hazel can remember, but it seems the time has come to finally reprise the roles they’d long given up. So out into the forest they venture, unsure of what they will find, but certain that they must do whatever they can to find the boy from the glass coffin.

On paper, there was a lot right about The Darkest Part of the Forest. The juxtaposition of fantasy with a contemporary and mundane American town is compelling, as is the character of Hazel’s brother Ben. We learn from flashbacks the heartbreak he’s had with boyfriends in the past, and how ardently he loves the faerie prince in the coffin. And for the first three or so chapters, these hooks were enough to drag the reader onwards.

But perhaps it was something about Black’s lacklustre writing style, or maybe the plot just wasn’t executed as well as it could’ve been, but the story became less and less compelling. Hazel as a character was unnecessarily broody and unrelatable. A pretty transparent unspoken something between her and Jack is long and drawn out, so much so that I lost interest fairly quickly. It became a bit of a chore to finish the book.

Black’s fanbase and her success with the SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES obviously speak volumes, and this being the first of her novels I’ve read, I can’t compare The Darkest Part of the Forest to any of her previous work. While the premise is very cool, it is perhaps not the best Black novel to begin with as the fantasy fizzles out to leave only the mundane.

~Rachael McKenzie


Kate and Jana discuss The Darkest Part of the Forest:

Holly Black‘s latest book, The Darkest Part of the Forest, is a marvelous YA fairy-tale remix. It follows siblings Hazel and Ben as they work to unfold the mystery surrounding the sleeping prince in the forest outside of Fairfold, a town where humans live in close contact with the fairies the rest of the world doesn’t believe in. As Hazel and Ben get closer to understanding the history of the town and the forest, they begin to hide secrets from each other and themselves. Only when all the secrets are told can they work to save the people they love.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsKate: The Darkest Part of the Forest combines the favorite themes of young adult fiction — identity formation, gaining independence, budding romance — with some of the most common themes in fairy tales — parental abandonment, sibling rivalry, the frightening power of love. But her combination of these genres doesn’t limit her story’s audience; on the contrary, Black’s book is sure to appeal to the broadest swath of readers, both those who enjoy YA and those who dig fairy tales.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsJana: I liked The Darkest Part of the Forest much more than I expected to. I thought that it had a good balance between inclusion and subversion of both YA and fairy-tale tropes: Normally in a brother-sister pair, especially when the sister is younger, a reader might expect her to have a supporting role — but Hazel is the sword-wielding knight who attacks monsters while Ben functions as the music-playing bard who distracts and enchants Hazel’s prey. It was great that Hazel was the physically stronger of the two, and that she wasn’t stuffed into a secondary role. At the same time, Ben is a necessary part of the pair, without whom Hazel can’t fight monsters.

Kate: I also really enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Forest. I liked watching how skillfully Black remixed fairy tale themes and images without relying heavily on a specific fairy tale plot to structure her story. The glass coffin, a timeless sleep, fairy revels in the woods, changelings — this story has it all and it will be fun for fairy tale aficionados to track all of Black’s references to folklore and legend.

Jana: I really appreciated that Black had done a lot of research into fairy tales and traditions of the British Isles in particular, since some details of The Darkest Part of the Forest would suggest that the town of Fairfold is in the northeastern Pennsylvania/central New Jersey region, and that part of the United States was heavily populated by immigrants from the British Isles. Settlers from any country would have brought their folklore and magics with them, so the idea of Fairfold townspeople leaving out bowls of milk at night for the Folk makes perfect sense. The setting itself really came alive for me because I spent about a decade living in that very region, and the descriptions of the forest match my fond memories of traipsing around the Poconos with my friends. Black writes well enough, however, that readers without those particular associations will not be excluded.

Kate: But Black’s indebtedness to fairy tales goes deeper than just including wink-wink references. She also borrows directly from the heart of Grimm by crafting her plot around the timeless anxieties and conflicts found in these tales. The main characters, Hazel and Ben, are a brother/sister team who love each other deeply and work to protect each other. But they are also in competition and as they begin to keep secrets, their jealousy and misunderstanding threatens to tear them apart. I was strongly reminded of fairy-tale sibling relationships like Hansel & Gretel, and Gerda & Kai, and even (at times) of relationships like that between the sisters in “Diamonds and Toads.”

Jana: The emphasis on the sibling relationship was a huge point in the book’s favor for me. Hazel and Ben’s relationship is realistic: they depend on each other for survival as children, drift apart as they mature into adolescence and attempt to form their own identities, and then must reach a new understanding as they work together to save their town and each other. Their absentee parents bothered me, but it’s part of the fairy tale trope; teenagers have to rebel against their parents in order to come into their own as adults, and it’s easier to convey that in fiction by removing the parents as functional characters. I understand why Black incorporated that part, and it’s done well, but the emotional toll it takes on Hazel and Ben is uncomfortably authentic.

Kate: It’s true. Hazel and Ben have been practically abandoned by their laissez-faire parents, in another nod to a recurring theme in fairy-tales. However, unlike many fairy-tales, in which the effects of child abuse or abandonment are merely symbolic or (often) tidied away by a handy marriage or fortune, Black make us feel the effects of this emotional abandonment. Even though they are still around — not dead or evil or off at war like many fairy-tale parents — their parents have left them to cope with the realities of childhood and adolescence alone, as poignantly evoked by Hazel’s memory of being hungry and cold at a party her parents were throwing. While the adults took drugs and fought, the children were left untended, their basic physical needs unmet.

Jana: As far as characterization went, Black gave equal weight to her adult and teenaged characters, which isn’t always the case in YA or fairy tales. The adult women seemed to be more on the ball than the men, particularly when it came to dealing with the Folk, and I would have liked to see that strength and capability translated to more involvement from Hazel’s friends with regards to the riddles and quests. Still, that’s a minor complaint when weighed against my happiness with so much of the other great content.

Kate: I appreciated Black’s treatment of Ben’s sexuality. YA fiction needs more gay characters, but Ben was not a token gay nor was his orientation dealt with in a heavy-handed way. Black treated it matter-of-factly and with compassion, showing us Ben’s broken heart when another boy rejects and humiliates him.

Jana: Ben’s sexual orientation was just a normal part of himself and not a Huge Big Deal, which made me happy. And the romance he formed with [name redacted] was so sweet and well-deserved after the problems he’d had in the past.

Kate: So, all in all, The Darkest Part of the Forest surprised me with its well-written characters, atmospheric setting, and deft use of familiar tropes. I highly recommend it for fans of YA fantasy and/or fairy-tale modernizations, and I’m definitely going to look for more of Black’s work when I want something interesting to read.

This was a great audiobook. The narration is largely in limited third person, sticking pretty close to Hazel’s view point. Lauren Fortang, the narrator, was a very believable and likeable teen character, embodying the voices of Hazel, Ben, and their friend Jack. Her fairies were suitably creepy and disturbing, especially the monster at the heart of the forest, whose sing-songy refrain may haunt my dreams.

Published on January 13, 2015. 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, once. 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 for 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?

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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10 comments

  1. I have had trouble with a few of her later works. The stories just seem to falter.

  2. R A Deckert /

    Holly Black… can be inconsistent. When she is good she is very very good. When she is less than good (as this book appears to be – caveat, I haven’t read it myself and am not qualified to pass judgment on this specific work) she leaves you frustrated and annoyed because YOU KNOW HOW GOOD SHE CAN BE.

    (PS – If you want a WELL DONE book with mundanes living alongside paranormal entities, try Alma Alexander’s “Random” (reviewed elsewhere on this site). )

  3. I was disappointed in that last thing of hers I read (I can’t remember the name); this sounds like she’s bounced back, or maybe it’s just more to my taste. Thanks, Kate and Jana, for the discussion!

    • I’d read some of her earlier work and wasn’t terribly impressed, but she really hit it out of the park with this one. Definitely recommended!

      • I aaaalmost picked this up in the bookstore a couple weeks ago, but refrained because I’ve also been a bit disappointed with the stuff of hers I’ve read lately. Now I wish I had just gone for it, sounds like something I would very much enjoy!

  4. great back and forth–it’s always good to get the in-depth look under what on the surface look like some of those same-old, same-old tropes to know how they’re executed.

    • It’s nice to look under the hood once in a while, and since Kate’s an expert on fairy tales, that added a great dimension to our discussion.

  5. susan emans /

    I really enjoyed this book! I’m so glad you both did, too, and it sounds like we enjoyed it for the same reasons. I am a big YA fan.

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