The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016, 352 pages
YA Fantasy

In a return to the world of faerie in The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black introduces readers to brother and sister, Ben and Hazel. Both have fallen for the faerie prince encased in a glass coffin in the forest. Though his origins have long been forgotten, the prince remains a big part of Ben and Hazel’s unique hometown, where tourists come from all over to experience the magic inherent. Despite efforts – genuine and otherwise – to free the prince from his casket, no one yet has had success. When the prince is discovered missing, Hazel strikes out on a mission to discover why and how, all the while dealing with keeping her own secrets both from others and herself.

A brief disclaimer – Holly Black got me into faerie way back when with Tithe. I wrote the woman a two-page letter in which I asked ridiculous and unnecessary questions such as if she liked baseball (she lived in Amherst, MA, at the time, and the idea that someone living in New England wasn’t at minimum a baseball fan and, really, as required, a Red Sox fan kind of messed with me). A few weeks letter, she responded with a hand-written letter herself and some stickers, some of which were signed. She’d responded to every single one of my questions. Stellar. I later met her at the National Book Festival in DC and told her about the letter and how much it meant to me. I saw her again this past spring at the NOVA Teen Book Festival. I declined to get in her signing line – it was by far the longest of any authors there.

So, what does this have to do with The Darkest Part of the Forest? Black had taken a break from faerie world (at least for young adults) and had gone with vampires for a while among other fantasy folk. I came to The Darkest Part of the Forest thrilled for more faerie. But the faerie in this novel felt somehow significantly and profoundly different from her earlier work. With much of the earlier prose, Black seemed heavily influenced by standard faerie lore, making the novels seem somehow more legitimate. Though Darkest Part employs elements from the tradition, the break from it overall left me feeling like the concept was being sold me to me and perhaps sold to me as a generic brand. You’d think a break from tradition (and therefore an inherently new perspective) would make it more of a name brand kind of deal, but really, I felt like Darkest Part was just a cheap version of what I’d read before with a different plot.

I also want to go back to my story about Black a few paragraphs ago and point out that I was twelve or thirteen when I got into her work. I have since reread some of the material (especially Tithe and later Ironside) and, at the time, it stood up. But I haven’t read it within the past handful of years. Does this mean I’m idealizing those given the world it opened for me and the significance it has had in my life as a writer and reader? Maybe. But I still can’t help but feel Darkest Part was a letdown.

At the same time, there were uncomfortable parallels with Tithe. I like my heroines to have a bit of pluck now and then, but Kaye of Tithe and Hazel of Darkest Part weren’t both just plucky – there were so many other traits that stood out to me as similar that it felt like Black had taken Kaye and repackaged her as Hazel – perhaps, again, the generic version. The boys closest to the girls in both books (Corny for Kaye and Ben for Hazel) are gay. Okay, but they’re also both nerdy and outcasts and have inferiority complexes and…need I go on? Parents in both books ring as irresponsible. Too much of this felt like a poor duplicate.

That’s not to say there weren’t great moments. Some turns of phrase and other bits momentarily brought the story and its characters to sparkling life, but it didn’t hold out overall. I closed the book feeling as if Black’s publishing house had requested a new faerie manuscript so she cranked something out and turned it in. They shrugged, said “Okay,” and set it out on the market. (*I don’t think this is actually what happened – just how it felt.) It felt manufactured and insincere. The power of women in Black’s previous work was severely diminished with a general lack of women on both sides, but more severely felt on the side of faerie. The antagonist in the book read as out-of-place and incomplete in its form.

Black has better in here, and I know it. I’m confident of it. I had felt a similar sense of insincerity when I first read the earlier pieces of the Curseworker series way back when (I never finished that series). Perhaps, like I said, I’m remembering Tithe too fondly and shouldn’t be comparing them to begin with. But I’m still left with what feels like the ashes and bones of a book that could have been.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤