The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Darkest Part of the Forest

Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.

As far as Hazel Evans knew, from what her parents said to her and from what their parents said to them, he’d always been there. And no matter what anyone did, he never, ever woke up.

He didn’t wake up during the long summers, when Hazel and her brother, Ben, stretched out on the full length of the coffin, staring down through the crystalline panes, fogging them up with their breath, and scheming glorious schemes. He didn’t wake up when tourists came to gape or debunkers came to swear he wasn’t real. He didn’t wake up on autumn weekends, when girls danced right on top of him, gyrating to the tinny sounds coming from iPod speakers, didn’t notice when Leonie Wallace lifted her beer high over her head, as if she were saluting the whole haunted forest. He didn’t so much as stir when Ben’s best friend, Jack Gordon, wrote, in case of emergency, break glass in Sharpie along one side — or when Lloyd Lindblad took a sledgehammer and actually tried.

As children, Hazel and her brother Ben roamed the forest together, making up stories and hunting down monsters. She wielded a magic sword, while he would incapacitate their enemies through music. They’ve both been in love with the boy in the glass casket for about as long as they can remember, calling him their prince, but since he shows no sign of waking up they’ve channeled their desires in opposite directions: Hazel will kiss any boy, but refuses to feel anything, while Ben is desperately hoping to find true love with the man of his dreams.

Hanging over her every action, Hazel has the knowledge that she’s traded seven years of her life to the king of the local faerie court. She could be taken at any moment, and the knowledge makes her reckless with her body at the same time as she fiercely guards her heart. She and Ben used to share all their secrets, but she can never tell him that her bargain was for the sake of his music.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is in many ways a recognisable Grimm-style fairytale. There’s a glass casket and a sleeping beauty and knights with magic swords. Faeries are tricksy and everyone knows they shouldn’t be trusted. The narrative style is simple and unprepossessing: it probably says something about trends in recent literature that I found it refreshing (and notable) to be reading something written in third person, even verging on omniscient at times. But there are some deliberate diversions, which are all the more consciously highlighted by the things that stay the same. Beauty is male, for a start, while the knight who wields the most powerful sword is a teenage girl.

I loved Hazel’s relentless drive to be a hero, even as she grows up and starts to see that maybe the moral stance of her childhood was a little simplistic. When the boy in the glass casket wakes up one night, and Hazel finds herself bleeding and caked in mud from a nighttime wander she doesn’t remember, it’s clear that the mundane and faerie worlds are going to clash irrespective of what she or Ben might wish. They must find their prince before things get worse, and somehow navigate a route to safety.

The complexities of family relationships flesh out the heart of the novel. Hazel and Ben’s parents are carefree, arty types who struggle to be competent adults, neglecting the children and leaving them to their adventures. By contrast Ben’s best friend Jack, a changeling boy brought up by human parents, has a loving and devoted adoptive family. Hazel’s relationship with her brother is strained by the secret she’s hiding from him, though the two have always been close, even as they bicker. And the boy in the glass casket also has a father, and a sister, and a family story that has shaped the faerie kingdom.

The atmosphere of the story is dark, with the faerie world portrayed as a dangerous place, although not all fey folk are evil: Black’s characterisation is too subtle to allow that kind of stereotyping to stand unchallenged. The adventure is compelling, the characters are hampered by plausible and interesting flaws, and the interwoven romances add a sweet touch.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is published this week. If you loved this, you may be interested in Holly Black’s earlier novels.

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