The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the ForestThe Darkest Part of the Forest Holly Black Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 2015

Holly Black
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
January 13, 2015

“Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin.” Holly Black is a master of secret-revealing. Reading through her Modern Faerie Tales series is like being let in on the best, darkest stories of your newest friend’s childhood as you sip whisky at midnight. Her newest work, the tale of siblings Ben and Hazel Evans, is very much a return to this masterful story-telling.

“Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill monsters and feel quite proud of themselves….She can look at her brother and believe that together they’re a knight and a bard who battle evil, who might someday fight even the monster at the heart of the forest. A little girl can find a dead boy and lose her dog and believe that she could make sure no one else was lost.”

Spoiler Warning

Hazel is ordinary. “Her tragedy, if she had one, was to be as normal and average as any child ever born.” Yet, she does risky and desperate bargaining with the Fey of the forest, teaches herself to sword fight through YouTube videos, and acts as a vigilante before she even hits puberty. To say the least, Hazel is a badass warrior. Her brother Ben, however, was blessed/cursed with the gift of music as a child and is haunted by the weight of creativity and power. Both struggle to lead normal teenage lives in their strange, magical town of Fairfold.

Fairfold is a tourist destination. Immediately, I thought of the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and of my own childhood in tourist-filled South Florida. People are either drawn there because of the promise of proximity to the extraordinary, or the beauty of the destination. Yet tourists are just vacationing, they don’t have to believe in local folklore and superstitions beyond their guided tours, they can leave when their adventure becomes too real. That is, of course, except for those tourists who are taken by inhuman creatures. Disappearances don’t stop people from visiting Fairfold anymore than Spring Break abductions have ever stymied the tide of college students to “exotic” locales. And this town offers a great deal more than bottomless margaritas:

“Food tasted better in Fairfold, people said, infused as it was with enchantment. Dreams were more vivid. Artists were more inspired and their work more beautiful. People fell more deeply in love, music was more pleasing to the ear, and ideas came more frequently than in other places.”

It is here that Hazel kisses lots of boys to take her mind off of the real and terrifying future. It is here where Ben confides in his best friend, who happens to be a changeling, about terrible dates with boys who are not fairy-tale worthy. And it is here where a beautiful, horned boy sleeps in a glass coffin. Hazel and Ben have dreamed about saving this faerie since they were small, spending hundreds of hours confiding in him and about him. However, when he does wake up everything changes, and Hazel must find herself, no easy task for a teenager, in order to save everyone she loves.

Black writes Hazel the way I wish female characters were written. She is strong, but vulnerable. So much of her time is spent protecting the ones she loves, but she goes after what she needs too. Most of all she is allowed to be a sexual being, kissing who she wants, and only feels bad about it when her actions hurt other people. She takes responsibility for her own life. Ben is also a delightful surprise of a character in a young adult novel. He is one of two out gay boys at his high school, and is given meaningful space and time in the story to discover love.

Most of all, the story is about the power of siblings. This tale has so accurately captured the tension of a sister wanting the best for her brother, but also wanting the best of what her brother has for herself. The story of siblings protecting each other in the face of neglectful, even toxic, parents transcends the supernatural aspects and brings their relationship to life. The other sets of siblings in the story add to the complicated tapestry that is modern family. How far will a family go to protect their adopted son? How long can siblings be separated and still want to save each other from pain? How much evil can someone do and still be redeemed through their sibling’s love?

Black’s newest work is an enchantment crafted with love, riddles, and quests for self. As soon as I finished the last sentence, I craved the first words again. “Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin.”

Al Rosenberg

Al Rosenberg

Gay weirdo. Talk to them about tiny games, big books, trash, and all things illness.