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The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Book Name: The Darkest Part of the Forest
Author: Holly Black
Publisher(s): Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: January 13, 2015

If you’ve ever read anything by Holly Black you will know that when it comes to fairy tales, she does not mess around. She takes every trope you’ve ever heard about fairy tales and turns it on its head. Then she finds some you’ve never heard of and tosses them in for good measure, and then she inverts them and dyes their hair blue. She writes characters who feel real – teenagers whose lives are messed up and who manage to carve out a place for themselves anyway, and exiled elves who make the best of their situations and come out on top a little colder and a little more cruel than they were before. She writes about edge spaces, times between now and then, places not quite here or there, and all of the myriad ways that the weird can inhabit the normal.

Knowing this about her and her style, I approached The Darkest Part of the Forest with high expectations. And then she blew them straight out of the water, because this book was so good that it’s hard not to write my entire review in screaming italics.

We begin in the head of Hazel Evans, a high school sophomore with more on her mind than boys and school. Hazel and her older brother Ben live in Fairfold, a little town on the edge of a forest that is home to a wild collection of fairies both benign and otherwise. It is also home to an unbreakable casket of something like glass, something that refuses to break no matter what, and holds the sleeping body of a boy. The boy has horns emerging from his curly hair, and pointed ears, and he never gives any sign of life, not even when the local teens throw wild parties around his resting place.

Hazel is a flirt, but a fairly disinterested one. It becomes clear almost immediately that her flirting is more to distract her than because she’s actually interested. Hazel Evans has a secret. She also has a crush on her brother’s best friend, a charming changeling named Jack, and a deeply ingrained sense of loyalty to the boy in the casket, even though it seems impossible that he might wake in her lifetime.

Holly Black lays out the setting in a skillful thirty pages or so, and then gets right down to the good stuff. Hazel starts getting mysterious messages from someone, and she wakes one morning with her feet covered in dirt. She has no memory of doing anything in the night, and when she gets to school she hears the news. The boy in the glass casket has disappeared.

She and Ben, who have both always felt a strong draw to the sleeping boy, decide to go looking for him. They embark on their quest with their socks inside out and oatmeal in their pockets, just in case. They know that something has changed for the town, something drastic, and they don’t know whether it will be good or bad. The boy in the casket has been a fixture since before anyone can remember. What if he was imprisoned because he is dangerous?

As Hazel and Ben search for their prince, tourists begin to disappear. Tourists have always been more or less fair game for the fairies of Fairfold, but in the past their pranks have been largely harmless. Sure, one or two people might disappear without a trace, or show up completely exsanguinated, or drown in the water hag’s pond, but for the most part the fairies stick to souring the milk, or leaving knots in people’s hair. And the residents of Fairfold have always been safe. Now, without warning, they’re not.

There is a monster in the heart of the forest. The children of Fairfold know this, but as long as the Alderking is content the monster stays away from the town. Once the casket breaks though, the monster shows its power. Townspeople start slipping into comas, and the people of Fairfold look for someone to blame. As a changeling unexpectedly stolen away from the fairies and raised by humans, Jack comes under suspicion.

Holly Black always does an excellent job writing complex characters, and The Darkest Part of the Forest is no exception. As Hazel, Ben, and Jack become closer in their mutual devotion to the prince, they learn more and more about the secrets they all keep from each other. Jack goes from an interesting side character to an integral part of the story as it becomes clear that he has more contact with the fairy world than any of them thought, and the teenagers of Fairfold find themselves in conflict with the adults.

Tension between adults and children is a common theme in traditional fairy tales, and Holly Black makes excellent use of it here. None of the adults notice anything out of the ordinary until the casket breaks, and it is only once the monster appears that they begin to take any action at all to protect themselves. In the meantime, Hazel, Jack, and Ben have already made contact with the sleeping boy and started taking steps to protect the town.

As events come to a head, Hazel must figure out who is leaving her messages, whether she can be a knight, who she might be in love with, and whether she, on her own, can possibly defeat the monster at the heart of the forest.

This is the best YA book I’ve read in quite a while. Lovers of folklore and fairy tales will recognize nods to such famous stories as Tam Lin and Ainsel, and those looking for stories with a twist will appreciate the inversion of tropes that pervades the book. Black also does a great job writing diversity into the story, with characters of color, LGBT representation, and a girl with a sword who breaks hearts and heads with equal skill. I loved every inch of it.


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