DNF, Gothic & Horror, LGBT+ Fiction, Reviews, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult

“THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST” BY HOLLY BLACK

The Darkest Part of the Forest | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9780316213073 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015 | DNF

“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 pointed 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, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?”

ELLA’S REVIEW

This book is weird. Not in the nice, macabre fairytale sense of the word. If I didn’t love Holly Black as much as I do I might even say this book was bad. But I do, I love Holly Black. Her “Curseworkers” trilogy is one of my all time favourite book series ever and “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” was also brilliant. This one however is weird. I didn’t enjoy it despite it having some nice parts and it left a bit of a bad aftertaste in my mouth. I didn’t finish it because 80 percent in I thought “What’s the point?” and moved on to something else but I’ve read enough of it to know that the last few chapters wouldn’t have saved it for me anyway.

HIDE, IT’S THOSE FAIRY-SLAYING KIDS AGAIN!

The thing is, this book is all kinds of unbelievable. But Ella, it’s Fantasy. Fairies aren’t real! Of course it’s unbelievable!, you might say. And I realise this of course, I’m not an idiot. But what’s so bothersome about “The Darkest Part of the Forest” is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It’s an Urban Fantasy. Fairfold is supposed to be located somewhere in the United States, it’s supposed to be a real modern day small town with a twist. That twist being that everyone in Fairfold knows fairies are real and living in the forest close by. These fairies are malicious as hell: They kidnap humans and kill them. Nobody in Fairfold really knows what to do about this so they just let it happen. I liked this a lot. Malicious evil fairies are my thing and the idea of a small town full of people basically ignoring that fairies are eating tourists had a bit of a gothic touch to it that I adored.

But I feel like this book was executed quite badly for many reasons. Apart from the fairies this is a normal US small town, right? Hazel, the teenaged heroine, is a normal small town girl. She wants to move to the city, she wants her brother to get back into making music, she likes to kiss boys, it’s all well. Until we find out that she used to kill fairies when she was a child. I’m sorry, maybe I’m just not creative and imaginative enough for this book but I did not believe this one bit. So this child finds an old sword and goes to the forest all the time to brutally hack apart fairies. Sure, Hazel.

This is something that could’ve worked in a High Fantasy or even historical Fantasy set in the Middle Ages but there’s no way in hell I’m going to believe a modern day child will just pick up a sword and kill dozens of fairies on a whim. Yes, I believe Hazel isn’t okay with the fairies killing people. Of course she isn’t. Who would be? Yes, her family has history with the fairies too. But this was too much, right from the beginning. No normal modern day girl would do that kind of thing outside of playing pretend. I guess Black was aiming for some kind of surreal fairytale vibe but it fell flat for me. Everything else was too normal, too every day. Hazel herself was too every day for me to believe she used to hunt fairies as a small girl. Wouldn’t she be traumatised by causing so much death as a young child? But it left exactly no mark on her. Bleh.

CRACKING THE GLASS COFFIN

The writing is gorgeous. I’ll give “The Darkest Part of the Forest” that. Holly Black’s style is lilting and flowery in this one (she tends to write differently in each of her books which I think is super cool), fitting for a dark fairytale. I also loved the fairy lore. Most fairies are malicious in this one, they’re downright evil. They like to make pacts and trick people and of course they eat tourists. The fairies were very close to the ancient fairy stories of Britain and France and I always like this kind of fairy in novels so we were all good there.

What I didn’t like was the pacing. It was off. By miles. The narrative is shot to ribbons with flashbacks telling the story of how Hazel used to kill fairies, how her brother Ben lost his interest in music, how her mother met some fairies, basically of how everything came to be the way it is in the present. I wouldn’t have minded the flashbacks, had they not taken up most of the page time. The actual story only really sets in halfway through and it only gets worse from there on out.

So Hazel is in love with the motionless fairy prince sleeping in a glass coffin in the middle of the forest and I have to say I was also intrigued by him at first but the magic peeled away as soon as the glass coffin cracked. Severin, that’s his name, was a major letdown. His backstory was a major letdown. The antagonist was a major letdown too. I thought the character’s backstory was kind of sexist, which surprised me because I always thought Holly Black was a feminist and most of her other books give that impression too. This is a spoiler but one I feel I should include, so:

Approach with caution

I normally wouldn’t include a spoiler like this in a review but this is one of the main issues I have with the book apart from the awful pacing and everything seeming not at all well thought out. The romances, one for Hazel and one for Ben, weren’t interesting at all which is mostly due to the characters not being very well fleshed out. Hazel and Ben were quite forgettable and even Severin (every time I type his name “Venus in Furs” by the Velvet Underground starts playing in my head by the way) couldn’t win me over. He spoke and acted like a normal teenage boy which was the weirdest thing to read since he supposedly spent decades asleep in his glass coffin. Somehow when he awoke and we got to know him better the fairy magic went right out the window.

THIS BOOK IS A POSER

I’d like to give props to Holly Black for making this a diverse book though. There are a few important characters of colour and Ben is gay. In the end this book being one of the rare diverse YA Fantasy novels out there made me really sad I couldn’t bring myself to like it more. But I just couldn’t. “The Darkest Part of the Forest” just didn’t convince me at all. It’s unique, yes. Another reason why I hate how much I dislike it. A unique, diverse fairy novel should have been an instant fave but it just wasn’t. The pacing was off, the antagonist was laughable, the storytelling was weird. There basically wasn’t even a real story here, no central conflict, which is what made me go “Eh” in the end and put it down for good.

It just felt… lacklustre. Half-baked. Unfinished. Not very well thought out. In all its uniqueness it’s highly forgettable. I forgot Hazel’s name the minute I was done with the book because she didn’t really leave an impression on me. Severin (Severin, Severin, speak so slightly!) was a weird character all over, there was nothing “fairy prince” about him except for his lovely pair of horns and long hair. Ben I did like but there wasn’t much to him either. Jack? Who even was Jack again? I forgot his brother’s name even though he was also a major character. There was too much I couldn’t quite believe too. There were Hazel’s fairy killing sprees of course but also how much her parents neglected her and Ben, the way the people of Fairfold reacted to Severin (Severin, Severin!) waking up, the antagonist’s backstory. It was all very flat and contrived.

“The Darkest Part of the Forest”’s problem is that it’s a highly mediocre book that tries very hard to be unique. The premise is. Unique, I mean. The book is beautifully written too. But at it’s core there’s not much there, at least not much you will remember for long. “The Darkest Part of the Forest” is basically a total poser. It’s wearing a gorgeous forest green fairytale gothic dress to make us think it’s special but on the inside it’s an average YA paranormal. It might have been way better if it hadn’t tried so hard to be something else. Black uses the author’s acknowledgement at the back of the book to admit that she had a hard time telling this story and it shows. I wish she would’ve been able to put a bit more work and time into it.

In fact, when I finally decided to put this book down for good I did feel like the protagonist of that Velvet Underground song, I felt like Severin (I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years!). And yes, I do believe Holly Black named Severin after this song, there might even have been something alluding to it in the book if I’m not imagining things now (I looked it up, there is! Ha!). I don’t know how I feel about this though. I guess Severin’s Dad must’ve been a giant fan of that 1960s band back when he was alive hundreds of years ago? No, but for real: Where Ludovica is from, Severin is a popular boys’ name. I’m kind of cross with Black for taking a popular German name and then just assuming that Americans will find it exotic and fairy-like or whatever. It’s like naming a fairy prince Graham. Graham, the fairy prince.

Yes, yes, Severin’s background is indeed German but my point still stands, especially since his sister is named Sorrel which is nowhere near a German name at all? At least be consistent? If you’re going to borrow from a different culture, at least do it right? I don’t want to spoil too much but I think I can safely say that she also heavily borrows from German fairy mythology in the way that she takes a very prominent German mythical creature and shoehorns it into her American setting and I hate it when authors do that. Why do American authors always do this? Why do they always take foreign mythology and butcher it so it fits into their American setting? Why don’t they ever dare to just research an European setting and let the book take place in the country the mythology is actually from? I will never understand but it upsets me. America is not the centre of the world. Sometimes it’s worthwile to research other cultures and setting your books in other countries if you’re interested in using their mythology. That’s all from me, I’m gonna listen to The Velvet Underground now.

About Ella

Ella is a writer and historian by day and a reader by night time. She lives by the North Sea and has managed to fill all empty spaces in her small apartment with books. She's 24.

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