In a glass casket, in the middle of the forest, right outside a small town called Fairfold, sleeps a boy. He’s been there for generations, long enough that siblings Hazel and Ben grew up with him. Long enough that their parents did. He’s not so strange, at least for Fairfold; everyone knows that the Folk live there, carousing with the townies and tricking the tourists. He’s enough of a local fixture that most played around him as children and partied around him as teenagers. When they were young Hazel and her brother even used to spend summer afternoons making up stories about him, where he was alternately imprisoned hero and captured demon. What is strange is the day the town wakes up to find the casket smashed and the boy missing. And he’s not the only thing that’s woken up in the forest.
I did warn you guys on the “other favorite YA author” front. Don’t say I didn’t.
I think what I always love most about Holly Black is her talent for spinning gold from straw. She has this amazing ability to go into a story that could be completely brainless fluff and make it work. I’m not entirely sure what it is about her work that does it, but there’s a part of me that’s absolutely knows if anyone else had done a take on this narrative I’d be rolling my eyes at it.
Her stories so often seem to lack any sort of shame: they’re unrepentantly nerdy, fully loaded with teenage drama, and ceaselessly romantic. Beyond that, almost all of them are perfectly classic fairy tales, where the heroes are true and noble, and good defeats evil, and all the deserving get their happy endings.
On a lot of levels, that’s what makes them so charming. It’s that classic feel that allows Black to modernize things without seeming like she’s trying too hard. And I can’t tell you how good it is, in a sea of shy waifs unwittingly forced into bravery and jaded antiheroines refusing to help anyone but themselves, to see girls who actually want to be knights. Black writes the sort of character who runs toward screaming to see if she can help, who wants to save the world, and I appreciate that more than I can say.
I know it wouldn’t work if it weren’t her, though. It would be too simple, too picturesque, with not enough character.
Because there’s always something grounded about Black’s work. You can see it in The Darkest Part of the Forest in all the little details. The wonderful, magical place the characters live not only has a darker side, but is also a tourist trap, complete with graffiti and broken beer bottles. The characters themselves act like actual teenagers. They swear, they drink, they skip out of class when they’ve found something more interesting. They act like douchebags out of sheer insecurity. And they’re still heroic and goodhearted, because even though they naturally push at boundaries like most sixteen-year-olds they’re not farcical wild children.
Even the tragic backstories have a little more grounding than I think a lot of Black’s fellows might give them. These are fairy tales, so sure, you still get the terrifying cursed powers that mark our heroes as special, But that’s always balanced against the sort of banal tragedies that happen to thousands of people everyday, in a completely non-romantic way. There’s nothing tragically beautiful about a pair of children eating scraps off the floor because their parents didn’t have themselves together enough to make dinner, for example.
In all of this, there’s a sort of fundamental understanding of people that I find really rare among writers, and that makes Black’s books, including this one, shine where they could easily come off a trite pap. It’s icing on the cake that The Darkest Part of the Forest is technically good, too.
This is something of a return home for Black, and you can easily tell that for years beautiful, evocative descriptions of the wild fairy court and the strange creatures that live there were her bread and butter. This book has all the creative imagery that Tithe did, but more polished and with less tendency to slip into purple prose.
That descriptive ability from her older books combines with the sort of layering that she’s brought into her newer work, where present reactions combine with past memories and future possibilities to lay the full context of the characters and events bare before you. Together the combination is powerful, and so many sections of the book just hit home. This is a book where I had to stop reading to digest several times.
Add into this a nice, slow build that manages to combine the town’s problems, past and current, our characters’ personal issues, and the breaking point they’re all steadily coming to into a single tense narrative, and you have a gripping plot, to boot.
This slow build also manages to layer more depth into characters that already began as three dimensional personalities, leaving you with a nice feel for both where they came from and where they’re going. Hazel and Ben, as the leads, obviously get the most insight into how their pasts effected their current situation, but even the side-character football players get enough personality to make them people rather than stereotypes. I have to say my favorite is Ben’s friend Jack, though, who as a changeling manages to channel both awkward teenage boy and mysterious fey creature in a way that works together better than it ever should.
If the romances are a little more standard than Black’s love stories typically are, they’re still fun and cute for it. The two main narratives on that front are missing a little bit of the specialness that I usually associate with her couples, but they never annoyed me. And I say this as someone who is typically annoyed by anything that focuses on romance.
Eventually, all of these different aspects converge into a huge, complicated mess of the best kind. The problems of the town’s past mix with family issues, mix with teenage angst, mix with relationship drama, mix with magical politics, and I love every minute of it. Because Black manages to work so many layers into every aspect of the plot and characters there’s a sort of depth here that you don’t see in many YA works. Even if on a surface level they may look the same.
So, yes, go pick it up, whether your thing is good romance, fractured fairy tales, or classic fables. If you love Holly Black already, you probably know what you’re getting into. And if you don’t, you’re in for a treat.