I’ve spent a great deal of time these past two years helping a friend revise her PhD. dissertation, which was about the history of sustainability in the Ontario forestry industry. Riveting, right? Anyway, one of the ideas she explores early in her thesis is that European settlers brought with them to the New World various prejudices regarding forests. The forest, in many European folkloric traditions, is a dark and scary place. We see this echoed in many a fairy tale. Julia Blake capitalizes on these traditions in The Forest. She weaves together an intricate story of passion, forbidden and unrequited loves and lusts, and cyclical prophecy.
Full disclosure: I received a copy of The Forest as a gift from the author. (I also received a free bookmark, so, you know, that’s definitely biased my review. Free books are one thing but send me a bookmark and I’m yours forever.)
The village of Wyckenwode has always existed on the edge of the eponymous and mysterious Forest. Only the Marchmant family and their duly-appointed Forester can enter the Forest; all other interlopers find themselves unable to travel very far inwards. The Forest exudes that subtle “old magic” familiar to readers of European folklore. The village has a timelessness to it, and a cyclical nature; people tend to stay in the village rather than leave it for work and life elsewhere in England. In almost all respects, life in Wyckenwode is veritably idyllic—that is, except for the intermittent appearance of the White Hind, which signals drama followed by death for at least three young people of the village. That’s where The Forest opens: the White Hind walks again, and naturally, we meet three young people who are perfectly positioned to be this cycle’s sacrifices to the darkness that lurks within the woods.
It took me a while to get into this book. Rather than dropping us in media res, the story opens with a prosaic dramatis personae as Blake walks us through the characters who inhabit Wyckenwode. Additionally, Blake’s prose style here is heavy on narration and light on dialogue. These two points taken together mean that, while the exposition is never overwhelming, you do have to absorb quite a bit before it feels like the plot is moving forward.
Once I became accustomed to the structure of the chapters, however, I came to appreciate what’s going on here. Many of the chapters are actually frame stories for a Forest-related folktale. After a couple, you begin to realize that the stories have these similarities to them, overlapping concepts or common themes that suggest some kind of common origin. I really like this portrayal of the fallible kind of collective memory that runs through old places like this village: each generation passes down the tales they heard from the generation prior, and with each telling the tales get a little mixed up, a little more muddled—yet they preserve some kernel of truth.
The Forest is therefore a kind of spiralling narrative. With each chapter, Sally, Jack, and Reuben learn a little more about the potential nature of the threat to Wyckenwode, thanks to these stories-within-the-story. Meanwhile, each must deal with their own dramas. Sally struggles under the weight of Jack’s overbearing, jealous romantic love when all she desires from him is a platonic, sibling-like love (can I ever relate to this subplot)—and Jack is not the only one interested in Sally. And Reuben is coming more and more into his role as future Forester, learning more about the mysteries of the Forest and wondering how this relates to the recent sighting of the White Hind.
Everything culminates on the night of the Autumn Festival, a most appropriate harvest-themed event for a story about forests and old magic. Here, too, Blake favours a spiralling approach to the action: rather than a single, climactic confrontation between good and evil, there are multiple, smaller confrontations. Each of our three protagonists has their chance to fight, struggle, and potentially succeed. Along the way, we finally learn the “truth” of what happened in the Forest all those centuries ago.
Then we get a denouement I was initially ambivalent about—I won’t get into spoilers, but it’s a HEA and at first felt too saccharine for me. (Also the age difference between Jolyon and his eventual bride… umm …?) Yet, looking back on it with about a week between me and the book, time has tempered my ambivalence down to a fonder recollection wherein the ending really just fits with the narrative structure I examined above. The whole theme of this story is about the absolutely batshit destructive nature of jealousy and envy, cranked up to eleven, and so naturally if you break that cycle you deserve a pretty good reward. (Also, for some reason aspects of this book reminded me of Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, which is much darker and much less satisfying a story, and that makes me even more grateful for the HEA.)
When you get right down to it, The Forest hits the spot if you’re yearning for a fantasy story steeped in traditional European tropes of magic, woods, and village life. Blake leans into these ideas hard, complete with chants and legends, allusions to fae creatures and changelings and the Green Man and other supernatural elementals of the forest—and this complete, intricate embrace of these tropes makes the story come alive. As Blake did with Erinsmore, she is reaching back into the traditions of her land for inspiration. As a result, this is also a great showcase of how white, Western fantasy authors don’t need to go around appropriating “exotic” tropes from other cultures to create their fantasy settings.
I’ll conclude by saying that there are serious Charles de Lint vibes here, and overall, this is a story for people who are looking for an escape from the problems of our real lives in the hopes that there might be magic just around the corner. The thing about old magic, especially the magic of forests, is that it’s never really gone. Sometimes, it’s just slumbering, waiting for someone—or something—to wake it.