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.Hey guys! It’s been a while, but I’m back, and I come bearing gifts!
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?
Holly Black is so reliable. I’ve enjoyed every single book of hers that I’ve read, and The Darkest Part of the Forest is no exception. After almost a decade writing Curse Workers and vampires and middle grade adventures, Black has come back to her roots with another modern fairytale – though not to be confused with her literal Modern Faerie Tale series, because I’m pretty sure this one is a stand-alone.
It’s definitely got a different vibe – less urban grit, and more small-town quaintness, with a twist. Forest takes place in a small, isolated town that, as a consequence of being founded on the outskirts of a faerie court-occupied forest, has developed a culture of wearily respectful fae observance. Residents grow up knowing that fairies exist and taking precautions against them the way a kid living in the desert takes precautions against snakes and scorpions. They grow up wearing their socks inside out, carrying iron nails in their pockets, making faerie-repellent necklaces in school, staying inside on the nights around a full moon, and eventually teach their children to do the same. And so the inhabitants of the town live in their uneasy truce, leaving out offerings and mostly staying out of their biz. In return, the fairies reserve their deadlier impulses for the tourists.
Yeah, tourists! See, there’s a Snow White-style glass coffin encasing the body of a handsome prince in the forest on the outskirts of town, and it’s become a roadside attraction in the vein of your “world’s biggest ball of yarn”s and “mystery spot”s. Visitors come from all over the world to see the prince and buy Authentic Faerie Trinkets and disappear at an alarming rate that still doesn’t stop them coming.
It’s a neat idea elevated by execution. The casual portrayal and slow reveal of the townsfolks’ faerie-related habits give the book an increasingly unsettling, dream-like feel. You can always count on Holly Black for atmosphere. I wish she’d write a horror novel.
Anyway, our protagonists are a pair of siblings, Hazel and Ben, who grew up having the kind of grand adventures that most kids only imagine. But Hazel and Ben’s were terribly real, and the fallout of their childhood decisions ends up informing the messy teenagers that they are at the start of the story.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot or anyone’s arc, because a lot of what I enjoyed about this book was the way it unfolded. I went into it thinking it was just going to be about the prince waking up and Hazel and Ben dealing with that in some Standard PNR Adventure Plot, and while it kind of is that, it’s made so much more interesting by its unexpected depth. Everything – and everyone – is more complicated and involved than I expected, and I think it would ruin the journey a bit to recap that here. So I won’t!
I still want to rave a little though, so please excuse my enthusiastic vagueness.
Y’all I fucking loved Hazel. I need to shout it from the rooftops. Her…archetype, I guess? isn’t anything new, isn’t even something I typically like, but Hazel is just a fantastically human character, and Black wrote her in a way that makes her feel fresh and subversive.
I loved that she was able to be more than one kind of girl? Like, she can be feminine and kiss lots of boys and also be this badass protector of her brother, and those two roles aren’t portrayed as opposing. I also loved that Hazel kissed lots of boys in general. I’ve seen criticism of her as a character that basically amounts to “Eww the slutty slut likes parties and kissing more than one boy” and that criticism can fuck off forever. Hazel’s desire to kiss all the boys is amazingly woven into her personality and backstory and motivation, but not in a gross way, and she’s not shamed by the narrative and it even backs her when some sad-sack nice guy reads too much into it, and god fucking dammit, we need MORE of that. So there’s the door, Hazel-shaming assholes, I don’t give a shit if it hits you or not, just leave.
Speaking of things I love – the relationship between Hazel and her brother Ben is aces. It ends up being the primary focus of the book, hugely tied in to the plot and the characters and their arcs, and like them, it is complicated and messy, but loving and real. It felt real, and it made them feel more real, which I’m pretty sure means that Black is Doing It Right.
Then there’s Jack. Oh Jack. Do you know how long it’s been since I liked a YA love interest this much? Because I don’t.
Labeling him the love interest is kind of reductive, though. Jack is Ben’s best friend and almost, almost, a third protagonist – which, if I can derail myself for a moment, AND I WILL, is another in the long list of Great Things about this book. Hazel is the Official Protagonist because she gets the vast majority of the perspective chapters, but this book could easily have been about any one of the trio of teens at its core. They all have backstories and traits and baggage that would make them the center of the universe in any other book, but this one is more interesting for letting them (kind of) share the spotlight.
Anyway, Jack! Jack’s conflict is another one that I don’t want to spoil, because it’s part of the book’s slow reveal, BUT I REALLY loved Jack as a character – his backstory, his arc, its resolution, and his parents. OH MY GOD, I have infinite love for his parents and their Big Moment. In a book full of satisfying moments, that was THE MOST. I felt that shit in my BONES. GO JACK’S PARENTS.
Also, his scenes with Hazel were hella sexy? Actually, all of the lingering, tense, banter-y romantic scenes between the romantically-paired characters were really sexy. Like, appropriately sexy, and not PC Cast, let’s-discuss-my-wetness sexy. Holly Black walks that line beautifully.
There are probably some legit issues with the story structure and pacing – the key threats just kind of SHOW UP towards the end, and the active one only makes like three appearances, total – but I kind of don’t care? I enjoyed reading the book enough that the flaws don’t really stick out for me in retrospect. For once, the good stuff takes precedent.
I’ve seen some criticisms of the relationship development, but I can’t even pretend to be concerned about insta!love. If nothing else it’s tonally appropriate, because everything about this book and its resolution is 100% modern fairytale. Even putting that aside, I still buy it because these characters have years of mutual longing built up for one another. Why the fuck not?
There’s only on real complaint that I can think of, and that’s a lack of women. The core characters consist of one (white) girl and three boys. Hazel has a couple of female friends, but they’re the sidest of side characters. Most of the important characters are male, which is a bummer, because this is one of those cases where I wouldn’t have minded an all female cast. On the upside, the book is still relatively diverse, with Jack being Black, Ben being gay, and the prince being bi. Black’s books have always been relatively diverse in that respect, and Forest is no exception.
So yeah, I dug this entire endeavor. I know Black is hit or miss with people, and The Darkest Part of the Forest isn’t radically different from her other stuff, so chances are if didn’t like her before, this probably won’t change your mind. But if you do? It’s a solid character-driven fairytale that I’m really glad to have gotten the opportunity to read (thanks Ollie!). A+.