The Other Side of the Page: Books and Comics

Fairy Tales and Makeout Queens: A review of Holly Black's THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST

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darkest part of the forest“Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill monsters and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil, who might someday find and fight even the monster at the heart of the forest.”

I love to read books about fantasy creatures and magical spells. I love to read books about modern high school romances, complete with love triangles and steamy makeout scenes. I love to read books with badass girls who wield weapons and break stereotypes.  I have just explained why I loved THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST as much as I did.

In this standalone novel, Holly Black spins classic fairy tale elements into a portrait of a small New England town, with bored teenagers and kissing at parties in the woods and parent issues. The only twist is that the people of Fairfold live side-by-side with faeries and changelings and, most unignorable of all, a horned boy who has been encased in an unbreakable glass coffin for as long as anyone can remember.  Hazel and Ben have spent their childhood making up stories about “their Prince,” whispering to him their secrets and making him the symbol of their quests in the forest.  Our story picks up when the two are now in high school. They have not stopped believing in the magic, but for some reason, the glow of it is gone.

The first thing that drew me into this book was the juxtaposition of the magical elements with the description of modern life. The teenagers sit on the coffin at illicit drinking parties on weekend nights, texting each other while reminding themselves that any rude behavior towards the Prince will have negative results. Ben’s best friend Jack is a changeling, the replacement that a faerie left when she stole his brother Carter away. Leaving out iron filings and red berries on the doorstep are as accepted a protection as flipping the switch on the security system. Fairy tale tropes that I’ve accepted elsewhere in literature for my whole life are pushed up against a contemporary description of teenage life in a small town, and I found it refreshing.

I also loved the characters that Holly Black created for this story. I like how Hazel kisses too many boys to combat boredom (and especially appreciate that this is not villainized in the narrative- she kisses and flirts because it feels good, and it does not make her a slut, a tease, or a bad girl), and how Ben likes to tell stories about his adventures in online dating. I like how Hazen is the brawn of their brother-sister team. I like Ben’s magically bestowed gift of music. I also really liked that one of the main characters is black and one of the main characters is gay. I’ve been more aware of diversity (or lack thereof) in my reading, and I appreciated that this book represented different looks and lifestyles. The triangle of affection between Ben, Hazen, and the Horned Prince added a delicious, delicate tension to the middle of the story.

That being said, there is A LOT going on in this book, and the plot points are revealed in jerks and shakes, as opposed to a smooth forward motion. Although the story begins with Hazen and Ben in their late teens, flashbacks, mostly in the form of Hazen’s memories, take us back to their early years in Fairfold.  The relationship between these children and the magic of their town is complicated, and as the book progresses, you begin to see the way that different events domino to bring them to the climax of the story, where Hazen is losing time, mysterious messages are being sent to the Evans’ home, Jack’s elvish side is revealing itself, and even the constancy of the boy in the glass coffin has been disrupted.  Although the plot is not complicated enough to make it hard to follow, I found it frustrating that so many different revelations were worked into a single narrative.  There was a rushed feeling to some of the storylines that left me feeling slightly cheated, and some emotional issues that were raised but didn’t feel resolved.  Some of the romance was a little quick for me, but I’m such a sucker for it that I’m never going to complain.

In summation, read this. If my biggest problem is that there was so much good that I wish there were more books to spread out the goodness, it’s a good endorsement.  THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST kept me interested and entertained, with a perfect balance of action and kissing. I actually need more books for more kissing. The kissing was good.

If you like this, you might try Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE (first in a trilogy of contemporary fantasy, although the magical world is much more prominent in that series) or Michelle Knudsen’s EVIL LIBRARIAN (modern world, magical elements, kissing…I’m going to keep recommending this until every one of you reads it.) You can follow me on Goodreads to see what else I’m reading, and send your recs my way! I’m always on the hunt for my next page-turner.

Have you read THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST? Anything else by Holly Black? I’d love to talk bookwormy with you.

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