***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: A good premise, with some fairytale tropes nicely upended and moments of respectable prose, but as with The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I found that the execution felt jumbled upon reflection--especially the unfolding of the plot.
The title. (A small point, but metaphorically significant.) I grant that titling books is difficult, and that the author is not always responsible for the title since the publisher often steps in to change it. But I've read two Holly Black books now, and no matter who thought up the titles (publisher or author), they both fail to make a connection with the actual work. In some way I wonder whether the titles inadvertently reveal the publisher's--or Ms. Black's--confusion over what her books are about, and where she meant to go with them. Both The Darkest Part of the Forest and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown are titles that successfully convey atmosphere and genre but have little to do with any kind of story. Combined with killer, gender-neutral dust jackets, the market for each book is clearly signaled with these covers, but not the content: we know from looking at them that one is paranormal horror, the other is fairytale horror. "Do you like this category and this cover image?" the publisher seems to ask. "Then this cool-looking book is for you!" It's virtually impossible to tell anything more from the title. Yet they're selling oodles of copies, so I suppose they're doing something right.
Quick synopsis. Siblings Hazel and Ben live in Fairfold, a town that exists alongside a fairy kingdom in the woods. Tourists come to see the handsome horned boy sleeping in the glass coffin and to search for fey in the forest, sometimes succumbing to a tragic fate (e.g. being turned into boulders, which I'm convinced is homage to one of my favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig). The local "townies" can for the most part avoid these fairy pitfalls by following certain rules. We learn that five years ago, Hazel foolishly made a pact with the fey in order to get her brother accepted at a prestigious music school in Philly. She did this because Ben had always been her partner in slaying fairy monsters in the forest--he charmed them with his music, and she killed them with her sword. It's never really explained how their butchery of fairy folk was never punished--you'd think they'd be on the Most Wanted list of the king of the fey, and that whatever truce the fairies have with the townfolk wouldn't apply to vigilante fairy-killers. But in any case, Ben's confidence in his magically-attained music faltered at a certain point, and Hazel naturally thought human music school could help. (Hey, she's a kid, so maybe this logic is age appropriate.) Ben's best friend is Jack, a changeling who was raised as a human. This is one of those shining moments of Ms. Black's cleverness: I loved the way Jack's mother figured out that her son, Carter, had been substituted with an infant lookalike, and in a badass confrontation with the changeling's mother, managed to keep and raise both children. Hazel has a crush on Jack, but feels compelled to make out with every other boy in town and not Jack. Later we learn that this compulsion somehow stems from one ill-advised kiss, when Ben's Philly boyfriend kissed Hazel in front of Ben after breaking up with him. The one person Hazel should be kissing, Jack, is in true YA-trope fashion the person she's sure she can't kiss, because he's her friend and Ben's best friend. One night, the town discovers that the glass coffin has been broken, and the horned prince released, and Hazel suspects that she's involved, though she has no memory of it. Yet she knows only the magic sword could have smashed the glass, and she has a lot of leaves in her bed and mud on her walls. (In all the nights she went out as Sir Hazel, she never had forest debris in her bed? Her brother never heard her leave and enter the house? She was only tired while she was in Philly? But I'm getting ahead of myself.) It turns out Hazel's barter with the fey involved promising them seven years of her life, and the fey king has been exacting the payment every night. "Night Hazel" is a trained knight of the king, and has been forced to torture and kill tourists. (Her guilt over these acts is meant to be lasting, but is only superficially covered.) For MacGuffin-esque reasons (to win back some Eastern Kingdom we've never visited and don't know a thing about), the fey king wants both the sword and his son back, and gives Hazel two days to turn them in. His son is of course Severin, who is out in the human world falling in love with Ben. When Hazel doesn't produce the goods, the king turns his daughter, Sorrel/Sorrow, on the town--she's a tree-like monster who induces a mournful sadness that puts people in a miserable coma, and her creeping moss swallows buildings whole. (Her backstory is fairytale-like, involving her brother, Severin, killing her mortal husband and her weeping herself into a monster, but again, Severin's guilt over this murder should be more profound than Ms. Black has time to allot to it.) In the end, Night Hazel has hidden the sword for Day Hazel, Severin has made up with his sister enough to shake the king's hold on her, and together they're able to kill the king. In the epilogue, Severin becomes king, Ben lives in fairyland with Severin while learning more about his music, Jack decides to live with Hazel as a human for a lifetime (presumably until she gets old and dies), and Hazel becomes Severin's champion--although I'm guessing she can only work for him part-time, what with, you know, high school and kissing Jack.
The good. In her review on the blog "Reading Rants," Jennifer Hubert Swan said, "Boys fall in love with boys, and girls fall in love with swords..." and those are two things I also enjoyed about the book. The notions that the damsel in distress saves herself and the boy gets his prince are wonderful. The sleeping beauty is a horned boy, which is awesome. The juxtaposition of contemporary life and a fantasy setting--kids drinking and dancing on a Saturday night on a magical, unbreakable glass coffin in the forest--was fun for me. (Unlike other readers, this did not complicate my view of my own, magic-free United States. Have some whimsy, people.)
The plot line of Ben and Hazel's parents neglect. This is meant to be the emotional core of the story, but it's introduced too belatedly. It's possible that Ms. Black wanted us to see how much Ben and Hazel had been repressing the bad parts of their childhood by holding it back from us, too, but it veers dangerously toward feeling like an afterthought, edited-in for depth and plotting reasons. Ben and Hazel's artistic parents are somewhat dysfunctional. They euthanize the dog rather than treat him with pricey medical care; they hold parties with their bohemian artist friends and forget to feed the children; Ben and Hazel have the freedom to slay monsters--which means risk their lives--without their parents wondering where they are. At the same time, Ms. Black shows the casual interactions between parents and children to be loving, and they did move the whole family to Philly to pursue Ben's music training. It ends up being a bit of a mixed message for the reader, which is a problem when we're meant to believe that the early neglect of Ben and Hazel is what prevents the siblings (emotionally) from opening up to each other, even while they're fiercely devoted to each other. Which brings me to...
Hiding things from each other. This theme is critical to the plot of the book, but still manages to be annoying in that "why don't they just talk to each other?" way. Hazel doesn't tell Ben that she made a pact with the fairies and owes them seven years of her life; Ben doesn't tell her that he fears that his music was the only reason his Philly boyfriend fell in love with him in the first place, and that he's trying to escape Fairfold and his music by falling in love; Hazel doesn't tell Jack she loves him even after he professes his love to her; Jack doesn't tell his friends that he has been spending time with his birth family (the fey); Ms. Black herself doesn't tell the reader until well into the book that Hazel and Ben's parents neglected them.
The king's motivation. As mentioned in the synopsis, Ms. Black introduces a MacGuffin-esque reason for the king to want the sword and his son back. It feels imprecise and chaotic, when there might have been time to develop a strong reason earlier in the novel. Also, the king is the generic bad guy who of course gets bloodily killed. No gravitas points awarded for that.
Rules of magic. I'm not terribly familiar with fairytale books, so if some of my head-scratching is due to inexperience, forgive me. The diversity of the fey was interesting--there were lots of lists of the varieties in this novel--but it's not clear whether they are species who coexist and intermarry, etc., and whether there are class differences based on type. As much as people praise Ms. Black's world building, it felt like these creatures were described simply for atmosphere. Similarly, it gives the story a wonderful fairytale quality to list the rules of protecting yourself from the fey (iron shavings or oatmeal in your pocket, your socks turned inside out), but I found myself wondering why these tricks work--is it a biological repellant, a scientific interaction, the superstition of the fey? Similarly, some rules were violated: drinking fairy wine supposedly ruins your taste for any mortal beverage, but that didn't happen to Hazel. But as I said, it may be that there is a long tradition in this literature that I'm missing.
Haphazard plotting. In my review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown I mentioned that I had the feeling Ms. Black wrote without an outline, by the seat of her pants, and gave herself a daily word count, hoping to find the novel's point and instill order later. This book gives me the same feeling. She couldn't quite wrangle the plot into submission, and couldn't tie the loose ends. For instance, Hazel feels guilt over her actions as Sir Hazel, but there isn't time to explore that.
The characters. Some of the characters aren't as fully fleshed out as I like. The horned boy, for instance, only has some infodump moments with Ben while staying in his room, despite becoming an important character in the story after he wakes up. The king is an anonymous bad guy.
The gore. I'm thinking gore has become one of Ms. Black's trademarks. As with Coldest Girl, it felt as if the violence only happened to people we didn't really know or care about. In that sense, the horror is just...actually, trademark is a good word: it's not significant in any literary way; it's there so you can market the story as "horror," while simultaneously offending the fewest readers possible.
Nitpicking. I wasn't convinced Ms. Black knows (or her copyeditor checked) what the lintel of a window is--in one case I was sure she meant "muntin," and possibly "casing" in another.
In sum. This is one of those books that went down in my estimation as I worked on the review. It's consumable and reasonably well written, and it has a happy ending that makes it feel "rounded out." I enjoyed it well enough while I was listening, and I don't regret the time I spent on it. But the flaws reared their heads as I wrote about the plot, and the vague, nagging feelings I had while listening coalesced into more concrete complaints. For my friend Liam, I guess I would summarize by saying I thought it was better than Coldest Girl in Coldtown.