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The Darkest Part of the Forest

May 4, 2015

I was looking for the kind of fairy story with fairies who like to trick humans and cause mayhem, and I found it in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest. It has a lovely beginning and ends right where it began, with a couple of key changes:
“Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.”

At first Hazel and Ben, who like to visit the horned boy, seem to be fairly ordinary teenagers, although they live in Fairfold, a town on the edge of a forest known to be inhabited by fairies. But then we find out that Ben was blessed with music by a fairy before Hazel was even born. And then we read the beginning of Chapter 5, which is where the extraordinary parts of the story really begin:
“Once upon a time, a little girl found a corpse in the woods.
Her parents had raised the girl and her brother with the same benign neglect with which they’d taken care of the three cats and dachshund named Whiskey that already roamed around the little house. They’d have their long-haired, alt-rock friends over, drink wine, jam on their guitars, and talk about art late into the night, letting the girl and boy run around without diapers. They’d paint for hours, stopping only to fix bottles and wash the occasional load of laundry, which even clean managed to smell faintly of turpentine. The kids ate food off everyone’s plates, played elaborate games in the mud outside by the garden, and took baths only when someone snatched them up and dumped them in a basin.”
So maybe not so ordinary. The corpse turns out to be a boy who had lived in Fairfold for only a year, so not as much fair game for the Folk as a tourist would have been. And then Hazel herself is caught by a hag, who rises from the water beside the body, and Ben has to play his reed pipe to allow her to get out of the hag’s grip, find a sword in the mud, and kill the hag with it. That is the start of their belief that “together they’re a knight and a bard who battle evil,” before Hazel is even ten years old.

And then one day Ben’s music falters, and he believes he needs to go to school in order to learn how to control it better. Hazel promises seven years of her life to get him the money to afford the school. He goes, but is frightened by his own power and breaks his fingers so they have to come home to Fairfold and live as ordinary humans. That is, until Hazel starts to get hints that she hasn’t been living entirely as an ordinary human. It turns out that the King of the Fairies has had an unexpected way of taking her seven years.

As she puts together the mystery, Hazel founds out that she has some unexpected talents and some unexpected and thorny alliances, like with the horned boy, who wakes up from the glass casket to ask her questions:
“’We left you some food and stuff,’ she said, trying to fill the scary silence of their walk and disguise the sound of her phone, which buzzed again. Ben must be calling her. ‘My brother and I, we’re on your side.’
He didn’t need to know she had doubts about his story.
A pained expression flashed across the horned boy’s face. ‘I am no hob or hearth spirit, to be obligated by gifts.’
‘We weren’t trying to obligate you,’ she said. ‘We were trying to be nice.’
Given the Folk’s obsession with manners, she wondered if he might feel at least a little bit bad about dragging her through the forest. She hoped he felt awful.
The horned boy bowed his head slightly, a thin smile on his face that she thought might be self-disgust. ’You may call me Severin,’ he said. ‘Now we are both nice.’”

Ben finds out things about himself and the fairies, too:
“It is mostly solitary fey who dwell in deep forests like those that surround Fairfold, and solitary fey are not well liked by the trooping gentry from faerie courts. They are too wild, too ugly, their violence too unrefined….Tricksy phookas. Green ladies who will strip a man’s flesh from his bones if he steps into the wrong bog….Hollow-backed owmen who inspire artists to heights of creativity and depths of despair. Trow men, with long, hairy tails and large appetites. Prankish goblins; homely hobs; pixies with their iridescent, stained-glass wings; and all the rest.”

In the end, they fight against sorrow, and the King of Fairie, and Ben saves the people of Fairfold with his music, and he wins the love of the horned boy. Hazel saves the people of Fairfold with her skills as a knight, and by giving up her sword to its rightful owner. She wins the love of her changeling friend Jack, whose fey mother warns him that “mortality is a bitter draught” to which he replies “and yet I would have the full measure.” The story ends where it began, as all such tales should, “down a path worn into the woods….”

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2015 7:27 am

    I keep meaning to try a book by Holly Black, so maybe this is the one! I like urban fantasy more than straight fantasy, but have to read other stuff in between, or all urban fantasy starts to feel too much alike. I’ve just started reading Slimy Underbelly by Kevin Anderson, about zombie PI Dan Shamble, but I didn’t realize it wasn’t first in the series. I think I’ll just keep reading and see how it is to jump into the series on the fourth book.

    • May 6, 2015 10:44 am

      I also liked Tithe, years ago when I read it with my daughter, and also White Cat, which is the first of the curseworkers series.
      Zombie PI, huh?

  2. May 4, 2015 10:35 am

    I have a deep and abiding love for Holly Black, but my favorites may be the Curseworkers trilogy. (Not the books that start with Tithe…those are clearly her practice efforts.) I liked this one, with its unexpected little twists, but I found it maybe a little slow-moving? But still definitely worth my time!

    • May 6, 2015 10:45 am

      I didn’t find it slow-moving because of the mystery. Who woke the prince? What was Hazel doing that she came home covered in mud and other things? What happened to you when you were a knight of Faerie?

  3. May 5, 2015 1:58 pm

    How fun that Hazel is the knight! Sounds like a charming kind of story

    • May 6, 2015 10:46 am

      “Charming,” heh. It is charmingly updated, so that the prince falls in love with the boy and the girl is the knight.

  4. May 5, 2015 6:49 pm

    I really liked this book — I read a bunch of negative reviews before I read it, so I was unexpectedly delighted to find it enjoyable. I love a creepy fairies book.

    • May 6, 2015 10:47 am

      I liked the way the King of Faerie called their attention to the fact that the faeries could have been even creepier, that he was holding them in check.

  5. Jenny permalink
    May 7, 2015 1:27 pm

    I’m a total sucker for books like this. You’ve completely convinced me. I’ll read it this summer, most likely.

    • May 7, 2015 1:54 pm

      It will be a pleasant summer read. More of a shady endeavor than a beach read, most likely!

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