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Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

darkest part of the forestChildren 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?

One of the reasons I love reading books by Holly Black is because she puts the everyday into her books, but with a twist that makes you shiver. In her latest book, Black takes the ideas of traditional fairy tales, but reworks them into something more sinister – something of which I’m sure the Brothers Grimm would have approved. There are humans living side by side with the Fae, a mysterious horned boy sleeping in a glass coffin, twins who are keeping secrets from each other, a Changling, the AlderKing and a mysterious evil force that tries to destroy everything and everyone. So … just your everyday small town, right?

First off, let’s talk about Hazel. She’s amazing. I loved her so much – she’s dedicated and fierce and fearful and loving and so terribly, terribly torn. She’s human and beyond human at the same time. She loves her family and friends with a ferocity that is admirable, even as you as a reader realize just how benignly horrible certain people are in her life. Ben is more of a challenge to get to know; so much of what we learn about him at first is from Hazel’s eyes that when Ben begins to reveal himself we wonder if we really knew him at all. Jack and Severin are wonderfully drawn, and you sense the aura of strangeness around them as you read their descriptions and actions. There’s a sharp edge to both characters, as if they are drawn with a blade that could cut you in an instant if you read them wrong.

Fairfold is an interesting town; they know the Fae Folk exist, and capitalize on that knowledge, but the town also carries that same sinister edge as some of its inhabitants. They follow the rules of old, and they expect the Folk to do so as well, but they won’t necessarily help the tourists who come in blind, hoping for magic and salvation.

“… Every autumn, a portion of the harvest apples was left out for the cruel and capricious Alderking. Flower garlands were threaded for him every spring. Townsfolk knew to fear the monster coiled in the heart of the forest, who lured tourists with a cry that sounded like a woman weeping. Its fingers were sticks, its hair moss. It fed on sorrow and sowed corruption…. Fairfold had the boy in the glass coffin. Fairfold had the Folk. And to the Folk, tourists were fair game.”

There’s a darkness that lurks at the heart of the forest that is acknowledged by the town, yet left respectfully alone … at least until the darkness demands more. I loved the descriptions of this darkness and of how it made everyone feel. I know I’m being deliberately vague here, but I’m not revealing spoilers at this point – you’ll have to read the book understand just why and how this darkness and take you down and drown you in emotion.

Black doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, be they supernatural or real life situations, and this book is no exception. There are teens being teens in this book, exploring who they are through their sexuality and through partying, so DPotF definitely isn’t a middle grade book this time out. The encounters are darker as well; descriptions of the full moon revels rival those of any god’s Bacchanalian event, but with more implied violence and terror. Like any good fairy tale, good must triumph over evil in an epic battle, but this fight teaches us that between the white knight and black-hearted evil king lie varying shades of grey. There’s some great lessons to pick up from the story – that we are always more than what we think we are, that darkness lies within us all – but I think that there’s a great story told in the power of sorrow. Sorrow is a deadly force in both the book and real life, and has the power to paralyse us all if we let it.

As per usual for Black’s books, the writing is filled with gorgeous and lush descriptions that send shivers down your spine. There are a few threads that are left dangling, but I found I didn’t mind that as much as some; to me, this wasn’t a conclusion to the war between human and the Folk, but rather another major battle in an ongoing struggle. I hope there are more tales from Fairfold because in my mind, the story’s not yet done.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a division of Hachette Book Group. A copy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase as of January 13, 2015 from your friendly indie bookstore, as well as in print  or digital format from your favourite bookseller or online retailer. ISBN: 9780316213073, 336 pages. 

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