The Darkest Part of the Forest
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….”