The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (YA)

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Reviewed by Bookgazing

Holly Black is one of the reigning queens of modern gothic. Her novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown presented an original, nightmarish vampire world that mixed garish tourist stops, rolling social media and a state sanctioned blood sucking system with classic horror imagery. It was designed to show readers that they could be simultaneously horrified, thrilled and surprised by American Gothic.

The Darkest Part of the Forest, Black’s newest young adult novel, swaps vampires for faeries but explores similar territory, mixing gothic-realism with dark fantasy. Coldtown is essentially a plague city and vampire playground; sanctioned and controlled by the state in order to save the remaining human population. The setting for The Darkest Part of the Forest, the town of Fairfold, is also built on a bargain with monsters – the Folk.

In Fairfold, the Alderking rules over a court of fairy Folk who are both terrifying and alluring. The citizens of the town leave tourists to the pleasure of these malevolent creatures, and in return their own families remain safe from harm as long as they observe certain rules. Readers of Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement will recognise the pragmatic reasoning behind Fairfold’s approach to the Folk’s ravages. And fans of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will understand why families stay in Fairfold and why tourists return each year. For in the forest of Fairfold lies a sleeping horned prince encased in a glass coffin, and who wouldn’t fall for a town that provides fairytale wonders like that?

Except, the bargain between the citizens of Fairfold and the faeries is fraying. It has, in fact, been held together with wishes and tape for years. Hazel and Ben Evans spent their childhood fighting the Folk; Ben using his Folk charmed musical ability to distract the monsters while Hazel, his knight, slew them. Ben’s best friend Jack is a changeling; a Folk baby left in place of a human child. The child’s mother, a resident of Fairfold, reclaimed her son and took Jack as payment for a bargain broken. Now Carter, her human son, and Jack live together as brothers in a town which actively works to repel Folk. The boundaries between the Folk and Fairfold, safety and survival, have been blurring for years. And this passive conflict is about to come to a head as the Alderking stretches out his fingers for more control and power.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is a Gothic fairytale that conveys the fear and fascination that a reader holds in their head as they explore deep dark woods full of violent magic. Black is fantastic at creating dissonant settings which both undermine and support the magic of her stories. Her eye for detail makes it easy for readers to see the cracks and darkness in the fairytale but simultaneously lures them in with the particular substance of that darkness. By conjuring a horned prince, encased in glass, who is surrounded by teenagers making out, dropped beer bottles and the other dregs of continual small town partying drags fairytales into the realm of small town American Gothic. And by doing so, Black shows how the mundane and the magical provide complementing contrasts that enhance the reader’s experience of the everyday and the fantastical.

Despite their fight against the Folk, Hazel and Ben have certainly fallen under the spell of their special town. Ben in particular is deeply in love with the prince, Severin. When Severin is finally rescued from his prison, Ben has to grapple with an ideal come to life. Black is great at explaining character’s emotions and remembering to examine all angles of the crucial relationships. And The Darkest Part of the Forest depicts a crackling romantic frisson. The romantic relationship between Ben and Sevrin is delicately written and extremely hot, as is the developing relationship between Hazel and Jack. I wished Ben and Sevrin’s relationship had received the same kind of focus and page time Hazel and Jack’s had, but since Hazel is the main character it’s hard to complain. Hazel and Ben’s individual feelings and mindsets are also smartly showcased, giving the reader a deeper picture of each character.

Part of what has made both The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and The Darkest Part of the Forest stick with me is how honestly these books examine the contradictory, but very certain minds of female teenage characters. These books never criticise the actions of these girls, or force them to feel remorse for being teenagers, instead they present messy life paths that many female readers will recognise. In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown the reader hears Tana’s strikingly open thoughts about why she takes up with Aidan, who she openly admits is ‘the worst boyfriend’. And in The Darkest Part of the Forest we meet Hazel:

Hazel kissed boys for all kinds of reasons — because they were cute, because she was a little drunk, because she was bored, because they let her, because it was fun, because they looked lonely, because it blotted out her fears for a while, because she wasn’t sure how many kisses she had left.

I remember once kissing a boy because I couldn’t make anymore awkward conversation. Maybe it was more than once. Either way this paragraph rang a lot of bells with teenage me, but until I read The Darkest Part of the Forest I hadn’t seen a young adult book present this idea that girls have a lot of reasons for kissing boys. When it comes to romance, there’s a reluctance to expand our vision of how and why girls, especially heroines, get physical. Hazel is allowed to be an incredibly open heroine.

I certainly encountered a few some bumps while reading The Darkest Part of the Forest. I struggled to feel the connection between the Hazel and Ben as strongly as Noah and Jude’s sibling bond in I’ll Give You The Sun. And the plot, although based around a clever concept, became hazy in places. Overall though, this is the kind of book I want to push into everyone’s hands. Just read it, OK? You’ll be better off for it.

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Holly Black, The Darkest Part of the Forest (Indigo: London, 2015). 9781780621739, 324pp., hardback.

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