Title: Darkest part of the forest
Author: Holly Black
Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest, by Holly Black, is a fantasy YA with romance elements. I’m a huge Holly Black fan – she’s been a major force in urban fantasy and her books are always gorgeous to read. This book had some problems, and the romance is pretty tacked on, but it’s excellent in terms of plot and dark fantasy atmosphere.
Here’s the plot as described by the publisher:
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 pointy 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 and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent 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 fun things about this book is that it is casually diverse. Ben’s best friend, Jack, is black, Ben is gay, and Hazel is the physical fighter in the group while Ben is the sensitive artist and Jack is the token love interest. I also love the language, like this sentence: “She fell asleep like a flame being extinguished” or this one, in which Hazel describes being kissed: “Like he was a shark and I was blood in the water.”
Another strength of the book is the atmosphere. I thought this book tried too hard to meld mundane reality with the world of faerie in ways that stretched credulity. But when it works, the atmosphere is fantastic in both senses of the word, with a great mix of unremarkable details and creepy imagery. Some of the most horrifying moments involve the mundane. There was some background details about Hazel’s early life with parents who were more interested in partying than parenting that were absolutely heartbreaking. Other, more supernatural moments are scary in more violent ways, as in a terrifying scene in which young Hazel is attacked by monsters.
Usually I write a review right after I read a book, but in this case life intervened and I’m writing the review about two weeks after reading the book. It turns out that the time lag is helpful, because I can focus on the aspects of the main character that stick with me. My initial reaction to Hazel was that she was a realistic character but not one I wanted to spend much time with. She seemed shallow, fickle, dishonest, and moody, as one might expect from a teenager with familial and supernatural issues. As time passes, I think of her much more fondly, partly because there are a lot of reveals about her towards the end of the book. I now think of her as stubborn, brave, and clever. I think about how much parental neglect she had to overcome and how devoted she is to protecting other people. Hazel isn’t warm and cuddly, but she knows how to step the hell up:
It was enough to make her want to sit down on the ground and start to cry. It was too much. But there was no one else, so it couldn’t be too much. It had to be exactly enough. It had to be what she could handle, and she had to handle it.
The biggest problem I had with the book is that Hazel kills her first fey at the age of ten and goes on to lead an incredibly violent life as a child and a teen. Her character has trouble with emotional connections but she shouldn’t be mildly damaged – she should be psychotic. Yes, she’s affected by her life, but not nearly enough. I just didn’t think it was realistic to have a kid who spends her childhood hunting and killing sentient beings (very, very naughty sentient beings – the ones who kill people) be anything other than a sociopath by the time she hit her teens. Since Hazel is killing monsters who are killers themselves, are her actions empowering, or damaging (to her), or both? I struggled with this aspect of the book, despite the author’s attempt to clarify things for me:
Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill monsters and feel quite proud of themselves. Even a girl who carries spiders outside instead of stepping on them, a girl who once fed a tiny fox kit with an eyedropper every two hours until wildlife could come and pick it up – that same girl can kill and be ready to do it again.
The other problem is that the romances are tacked on. The Prince and Jack both make beautiful speeches about love but the relationships felt arbitrary. The Prince and Ben know each other for a short time, and Hazel and Jack know each other for years, but neither couple has much of a relationship – just a really fantastic speech. I didn’t hate the romances but I also wouldn’t have missed them if they had been left out of the book.
The important things about the story are responsibility, bravery, loyalty, and honesty, not romantic love. Everyone has a secret, and ultimately it’s the airing of secrets that saves the day more so than kicking the bad guy’s ass. Romance is sort of a sideline.
Apparently everyone in town knows this rhyme, and I’m sorry but if this is the local nursery rhyme then for God’s sake, move out:
There’s a monster in our wood. She’ll get you if you’re not good.
A nest of hair and gnawed bone. You are never, ever coming home.
Load the U-Haul, people.
The conclusion of this book was very satisfying and overall I enjoyed it. Better yet, I’m still picking over it in my head even though about two weeks have passed since I read it – I love it when a book sticks in my brain like that. Read it for the horror and the fantasy. Just don’t read it for the romance.
Buy it here: