Feb 19, 2015

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly BlackThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Fairfold is a strange place. It’s a town where humans and the Fair Folk live side by side; a town where a beautiful horned faerie prince has slept in a glass coffin for years and years, and where successive generations of local teenagers have held parties around him. In Fairfold, people accept the dangerous magic of the faeries by convincing themselves that if only they follow the rules, they and their loved ones won’t be at risk of disappearing when out one night — or worse. But there’s a monster in the dark heart of the forest that surrounds Fairfold, and nobody really knows for how long it can be kept at bay.

Ben and Hazel are siblings, and they’ve lived in Fairfold for most of their lives. When they were younger, the two tried to cope with their parents’ neglect by playing at being a bard and a knight who hunted monsters in the forest. But in a place like Fairfold, a game like that isn’t only a game. When one day the glass coffin is broken and the faerie prince disappear, Ben and Hazel have to revisit their past and work out how it shapes their present. What’s behind Hazel’s dreams of being a knight who rides with the faeries? Why doesn’t Ben play music anymore? And what happens when you fall in love with one of the Fair Folk?

I worry I’ll be misunderstood if I say that while I really enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Forest, it’s not my favourite of the Holly Black novels I’ve read so far. This isn’t to say there isn’t plenty to love here; it’s just that Doll Bones and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown set the bar extremely high. Also, while this is of course personal and your mileage may vary, to me the plot of The Darkest Part of the Forest felt messier and less fine-turned. However, it makes up for any plotting hiccups with its thematic richness, with its wonderful characters, and with some excellent worldbuilding. I loved how ordinary life and old folklore were intertwined in Fairfold, and I loved that it was both a place that was part of the contemporary world and not.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is not the story you think you know: it subverts fairy tale tropes while paying loving homage to the folklore it draws from, which is something I always appreciate seeing. One of the strategies through which it achieves this is by gender-flipping and diversifying the characters you traditionally find in folk and fairy tales: here we have a male sleeping prince becoming the object of the two central siblings’ very different fantasies; a daring girl knight ready to come to the rescue; a boy with nurturing qualities that are usually coded as feminine; and a lovely happy romance between two boys at the centre of it all. I loved how Ben’s sexual orientation was portrayed as one of the many things that make him who he is, rather than as a plot point or a source of tension. To be clear, it’s unfortunately true that being gay is sometimes still a source of tension in the lives of contemporary teenagers, and we do need stories that acknowledge and reflect that. But we also need them not to be the only stories we tell about the lives of gay teens: as I always seem to end up saying, the problem is in the pattern, and the only way to break it is by expanding the range of stories we write, read, share and celebrate.

So I liked Ben a lot, and I loved where his story took him. However, Hazel was the one who really stole my heart. I’ve come to realise I love the kinds of girls Holly Black writes, and Hazel is no exception. First of all, I love that she’s a knight and that her skills when it comes to physical fighting are normalised throughout the story. Secondly, there’s the fact that she’s allowed sexual experimentation with no slut-shaming or narrative punishment. As we learn early on in the story, Hazel has kissed a lot of boys over the year, boys she has no particular emotional investment in, and she’s not once made to suffer, atone or apologise for this.

Additionally, Hazel reminded me a bit of Tana in Coldtown, in the sense that she’s someone who keeps her guard up and for whom intimacy doesn’t come easily. Again, I love that Holly Black writes girls like this, girls who are reminders that we are many things. Girls and women are as likely as men to struggle with or simply reject closeness, for any variety of reasons. Yet this is at odds with the gendered expectations that are thrust upon them, and so they’re treated with entitlement or villanised. I’m glad Hazel was given the space to be who she was: her story was a reminder that doubts are okay, that taking time to let someone in is okay, and that girls get to be the subjects and not just the objects in this kind of negotiation of intimacy.

If anything, I kind of wish Hazel’s behaviour had been a little less firmly linked to the emotional scars from a childhood of neglect — but this is, once again, a problem with the pattern rather than with this individual story. I want stories where girls kiss however many boys they want without this signalling some hidden inner hurt, but I also want the particular story The Darkest Part of the Forest tells. Plus I found the way Black wrote about Hazel and Ben’s childhood experiences moving. The two grew up without someone in their lives who was consistently able to be an adult and make sure they were clothed, fed, and safe. In the eyes of their friends there’s an aura of glamour surrounding their childhood in a bohemian household with parents who didn’t believe in rules, but as the story progresses we get to dig deeper and see that this had a cost. At the same time, Ben and Hazel’s parents are written generously and humanely: they’re complicated, fallible people who made mistakes with consequences that can’t be erased, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love their children and are not, now, trying to do their best.

The last thing I want to talk about is Fairfold itself: The Darkest Part of the Forest is about a town and its people turning on easy scapegoats when they’re threatened, because that’s easier than acknowledging their own powerlessness. It’s easier than admitting you’re trapped in an unfair system that could turn on you at any moment, and that there’s nothing you can do to stop it but overthrow it entirely. As we’re told in one of the early chapters,
Tourists, the locals would say, a sneer in their voices. And they still did. Because everyone believed — everyone had to believe — tourists did stupid things that got them killed. And if someone from Fairfold very occasionally went missing, too, well, they must have been acting like a tourist. The people of Fairfold came to think of the Folk as inevitable, a natural hazard, like hailstorms or getting swept out to sea by a riptide.
And later on:
After all, in Fairfold, the Folk hurt only tourists, so if you got hurt, you must be acting like a tourist, right? You must have done something wrong. Someone must have done something wrong. So long as there was someone else to blame, no one ever had to admit how powerless they were.
This is a familiar scenario, and it’s easy to establish a dozen different parallels with the cultural myths surrounding misfortune, violence or systemic injustice in our world, and with how easily we blame the victims. In Fairfold, people eventually realise that the difficult and scary thing, the thing that requires you to acknowledge your vulnerability and then press for change regardless, is the only effective thing in the long run. I hope we’ll one day all to the same.

They read it too: The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia, The Book Smugglers, you?


  1. I really want to read this, but then... I haven't read a few of her other books that I really wanted to read. Just not enough hours to get to all the appealing books out there!

    1. Have you read Doll Bones? That one is hard to beat in my heart. I love it so much.

  2. So I must read Holly Black. I actually have her on my list - recommended by you - and yet... why oh why didn't I win the lottery so I could retire and do nothing but read?

  3. Yeah, I think I still love The Coldest Girl in Coldtown better than this one, but as you point out, there's a lot to love here too! Isn't the last sentence of the book terrific? It encapsulates so much of the trope subversion that Holly Black does throughout the book. And I am invariably a sucker for a good sibling relationship -- I loved the scene where Ben and Hazel are talking to the horned boy, and Ben says "You're not going to embarrass me into leaving my sister behind." It reminded me of all the stuff Polly says in Fire and Hemlock about how being a hero is mostly forgetting how silly you feel.

    1. I love what you said about Polly! And yes, the last sentence was great - the whole of the final paragraph made me so happy.

  4. I still haven't read Doll Bones, and I do like Coldest Girl in Coldtown more, although a part of me wonders if that's just because I read it after Darkest Part of the Forest. Either way, YES, I love Holly Black's heroines, and I guess I feel a particular connection to Hazel because of her (and Ben's) childhood.

  5. I did love the way Hazel wanted to rescue the horned boy and Ben wanted to take care of him.
    I didn't think the so-called neglect necessarily scarred the kids too much. Like anything else, the perception of neglect is made through the lens of expectations, and fairy tale expectations can be misleading. That Jack remembered Hazel being neglected shows that she was always the center of his frame. But that doesn't mean he would be wrong to pay more attention to her than to any eventual offspring they might have.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.