I first came across Holly Black with the release of her first Tale of Modern Faerie, Tithe, which followed half-Japanese (sort of: read more on this here) Kaye as she journeys through the dark fey world with her best friend’s older brother, Cornelius. I was deeply enamored with Black’s writing style as a teenager: the fluidity of her imagery, the dark undertones of each character and creature and dialogue, and especially her boldness with sexuality and nonchalant LGBT representation (notably only reserved for side characters though; more on this later).
I wasn’t around the YA genre when her follow-up books to Tithe were released, (Valiant and Ironside) and so I was pleasantly surprised at the recent publication of The Darkest Part of the Forest (Jan. 2015) which coincided with my own return to exploring YA. Having returned to the genre from a very different perspective (and, cough, age), it’s kind of comforting to have something familiar to fall back on. But Holly Black and her faerie worlds have changed, too.
The Darkest Part of the Forest tells the story of Hazel and Ben Evans, siblings connected to and destined for the strange faerie world in the forest beyond their tiny town of Fairfold. Unlike Tithe, the human and faerie world not only interact but overlap: Tourists come to Fairfold to gaze at the horned boy sleeping in a glass casket, and some go missing due to fey mischief, a truth openly acknowledged by everyone in town. The contrast between the modern and the folklore make for a great backdrop for the main story: The horned boy in the glass casket wakes up and Hazel and Ben suddenly have a faerie king at their backs and a monster at the heart of the forest tormenting the townspeople.
But, how does Black’s latest novel hold up in terms of diversity? The simplest answer is: It tries.
Reminiscent of her first faerie romp, our heroine is accompanied by a gay brother figure who is seduced by handsome faery men. There is thankfully no angst over Ben’s sexuality and his relationship with the fey (no spoilers as to whom) is actually kind of saccharine sweet by the end. (Probably to atone for the crazy BDSM relationship, sans love, that Corny had with his fey lover in Tithe.) The no-nonsense way everyone simply accepts Ben’s sexuality is both refreshing and gratifying: He is gay, just as he is Hazel’s brother, just as he is gifted with music. It is a part of him without solely defining him throughout the book.
The real problem of representation in the book – unfortunately and oddly enough – comes in the form of my favorite character among the cast, Jack Gordon. Everyone’s back stories are complex and compelling, but none so much as Jack, borne a faerie but switched out with a mortal baby and left as a changeling. As a resident of Fairfold, the human mother immediately recognizes something wrong with “her” child and enacts a ritual to get back her rightful baby, Carter. Long story short, she ends up keeping both Carter and Jack who is stuck looking like Carter. Oh yeah, and Carter, Jack, and their parents are black.
Which, by the way, is how Black also treats the Gordon family’s blackness. It’s great that it’s not a big deal socially, especially in Hazel’s long-time crush on Jack because how often do you really get to see interracial romantic relationships in mainstream YA without it being a big deal? Not often. However, my biggest problem with Jack’s racial diversity is how it’s treated in relation to the actual storyline. Like Tithe’s Kaye, Jack diversity seems to be negated by his role as a faerie changeling: He has taken on the appearance only of a mortal — race included.
Additionally, when the horned boy wakes in his glass casket and havoc is wreaked on Fairfold, the townspeople blame Jack’s residence in the town (the only fey among mortals) for the appearance of the monster at the heart of the forest who has begun poisoning the town’s children. The witch hunt, for me, was heightened by the fact that the Gordon family is left to defend their son from a town of primarily white families — but this aspect is never addressed in the text. Like Tithe, I can’t help but wonder if Black feels it is easier to add diversity on characters who are already Othered by their magic as a separate species.
Still, the story is compelling and it must be said how deeply satisfying Hazel’s arc as a girl knight proceeds. Hazel is the character I think I needed more than Tithe’s Kaye. Black goes against a lot of standard tropes to push Hazel as the real heroine of the story. She is a knight, unabashedly, an equal among male warriors without question. She gets to use a sword, fight monsters, and outsmart a faerie king. Ben’s role as a bard, enchanting the monsters as a distraction, balances Hazel’s hard action, as does Hazel’s complex internal conflict with defending herself from everyone around her. Black treats this introspection with care, revealing little by little, neither weakening nor excusing Hazel’s decisions and actions. It makes our protagonist both compelling and extremely likeable because we, as a reader, are forced to work equally hard to understand her throughout the narrative.
The faerie world in this book is just as dark as the other Modern Tales of Faerie books, shimmering with color and pools of blood alike. Black clearly does her research into folklore and superstitions, weaving them into the text in a way that reads naturally and beautifully. The only bumps in the actual narration may be an overload of background characters, who, for some reason, Black feels compelled to give first and last names for even if we never really see them again. I suppose she is trying to help populate Hazel’s school and peer relations in a realistic way, but, with Hazel as such a loner, it only ended up confusing me, trying to figure out why I was supposed to understand a one-off reference from fifty pages ago to make me care about characters who appear in order to be put in danger and then are never seen again.
Overall, Black’s prose is evocative and refreshing enough to forgive a few missteps here and there and the diversity present is still compelling and exciting: brave Ben and the mysterious, daring, and always attractive Jack. I gave this book FIVE out of FIVE potatoes. It’s not perfect, but Black is a gifted writer, Hazel is a strong character, and the faerie world created has lingered with me for weeks.
Intrigued? You can still enter to win a copy of The Darkest Part of the Forest in our February giveaway by entering a comment here with the book’s title! Winners for this book or The Sin-Eater’s Daughter will be announced on Feb. 27 so enter soon!