By way of introductory remarks, I’d like to state Holly Black wasn’t really on my to read list at the start of May, and that list is longer than a conger. It does also tend to contain most authors with a certain level of popularity after a while; if nothing else, I am curious. Still, nobody had given me any hype for Black that matched up with what I wanted. Even when I saw that The Darkest Part of the Forest was a Wyrd & Wonder readalong and decided to give it a passing glance, I didn’t really expect much.
Boy was I wrong.
My tastes in fantasy are diverse but narrow. They encompass many things but only when those things fit a fairly specific base template. Said template mostly amounts to interesting characters, interesting views on humanity, and adventure. Mythic resonances, weirdness and mystery, complicated social dynamics, people at their best, and big emotional climaxes all make me happy too, but it’s that template that has to be there. Happily, all of that is in The Darkest Part of the Forest.
The book mostly revolves around a pair of siblings, Hazel and Ben, who live in a place named Fairfold that’s right by a fae infested forest. Most of the denizens are pretty damn casual about that and we get an example of that soon when we see a teenage party on top of the crystal tomb of some horned fae kid. In news that will shock nobody though, the tomb ends up empty pretty quick.
That’s when things go south in the most enjoyably rompy of ways.
Hazel is my sort of fictional hero. She’s recklessly brave, highly competent, generous in thought and deed, and full of tasty personal hold-ups. You can rely on her to get pieces of plot absolutely everywhere without being either an idiot or a jerk. In short, she’s just very enjoyable to read about. The mix of protectiveness and secrecy with which she and her brother Ben approach each other feels real and fascinating. She could have approached her crush on the changeling Jack with less self-pity for my taste, but it does feel true.
And the plot reveals around her? It’s very rare I drop a book and go off to bother my friends with “did you see that” but I did here. Black has written a smart, well-paced plot that scores a bullseye on the narrow spot between too unpredictable and vague to satisfy but too obvious to surprise. That takes real talent, that does. No wonder Holly Black has become such a big name.
If I have one criticism, it’s that the actions of the people of Fairfold ended up feeling more convenient than inevitable. I had to make a decision to suspend my disbelief there. But I did, because I was having so much fun.
Fun is what this book is about. Fae-heavy urban fantasy isn’t usually my favourite part of the genre but damn it all if I didn’t have a bunch of fun anyway. The characters chew up the scenery and occasionally each other, but without ever losing their proportional sense of humanity. There wasn’t a lot that appealed to me about Holly Black’s work prior to this, but I will be back now.