The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Published January 13th 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Children 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?
I don’t think Holly Black’s books have ever been a hit or a miss for me – I’ve found her books all fairly middling, and The Darkest Part of the Forest was no different.
The beginning was fairytale-mysterious: a faerie boy, asleep in a glass coffin in the woods. There were changelings and strange notes and knights and protective mothers, and the twist at the end was both fitting and surprising. There was bits of high-school, bits on growing up, and bits of crackle-dark faerie fantasy all mixed together. The setting of Fairfolk, in particular, was my favorite thing, and how it managed to combine all the whimsy and eerie strangeness of The Darkest Part of the Forest’s fantastical elements with more mundane parts of an entirely ordinary town.
I also really appreciated Hazel and Ben’s relationship. Often, I find sibling relationships are portrayed as all or nothing, as siblings who share eVERYTHING with each other, or siblings who are so cold and distant you’d think them strangers. Hazel and Ben are close, but their relationship navigates its bumps and craters; there are secrets and jealousies and worries, just as there are lighthearted ribbing and support and care.
But, an okay read, a middling book, you may ask? And, yes. Quite honestly, I think I was more in love with the idea than the execution. Though at the opening, the writing is perfectly atmospheric and fairytale-ambling, it gradually grows to feel dry. Hazel was strong and brave… but hard to read at times, not an easy person to sympathize with at others, and dry. Ben was even harder to grasp as a character than Hazel was, and though the book certainly tried on both their behaves, to paint them in favorable and relatable lights, I just felt oddly detached. There was nothing inherently wrong with them, but nothing that really worked for them, either. It’s a little strange because the book spends so much time describing the siblings though the eyes of the other, and so we know so much about the two, but, still, they don’t seem to have much personality. I felt a little bad for Jack, the cinnamon roll character Doing His Best, but he was just… kind of… there? for most of the story? And Severin, for all his gorgeous introductions and mysterious circumstances, once awakened, was dull and dry and dry, dry, dry.
The pacing wanders in the beginning, skips a little, and then s l o w s. The attempts and build-up to the climax feel lost under the loose pieces of everything else. There’s not a lot of tension, and the stakes, though mentioned, don’t actually seem very significant. Toward the end, there came a point where I was just tempted to skim through the rest because of how little substance each page was coming to actually cover.
Hazel and Ben’s respective romantic relationships, too, felt… off? Lacked build-up. Like neither of them really developed from anything, but somehow they were there, they happened. (Though, the ending really was pretty cute-)
“Well fine, then. I could send you out to win my favor. Possibly on a quest involving bringing a large mug of coffee and a doughnut. Or the wholesale slaughter of all my enemies. I haven’t decided which.”
TL;DR: while I liked the individual ideas and elements, as well as the setting and the first half of the book, The Darkest Part of the Forest gradually grew to feel dry, and a little tedious.