Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Published on 14 September 2021
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Girls & Women, Orphans & Foster Homes, United States, Young Adult
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When her siblings start to go missing, a girl must confront the dark thing that lives in the forest—and the growing darkness in herself—in this debut YA contemporary fantasy for fans of Wilder Girls.
Derry and her eight siblings live in an isolated house by the lake, separated from the rest of the world by an eerie and menacing forest. Frank, the man who raised them after their families abandoned them, says it’s for their own good. After all, the world isn’t safe for people with magic. And Derry feels safe—most of the time.
Until the night her eldest sister disappears. Jane and Derry swore to each other that they’d never go into the forest, not after their last trip ended in blood, but Derry is sure she saw Jane walk into the trees. When another sibling goes missing and Frank’s true colors start to show, feeling safe is no longer an option. Derry will risk anything to protect the family she has left. Even if that means returning to the forest that has started calling to Derry in her missing siblings’ voices.
As Derry spends more time amidst the trees, her magic grows more powerful . . . and so does the darkness inside her, the viciousness she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. But saving her siblings from the forest and from Frank might mean embracing the darkness. And that just might be the most dangerous thing of all.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I quite enjoyed A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, who I followed on Twitter even before she announced her book deal. I was drawn to the concept of the creepy forest, and yes, to be honest I was also drawn to a book that dared to put a fat character front and centre, though I was pleased to see that the characters’ physical attributes did not play a significant part of the plot and that she didn’t hate her body or lose weight and all her problems were solved. She was just fat, and that was part of the book’s diversity.
I think my favourite part of this book besides the narrative voice, which was smooth and strong and engaging, was the sibling dynamics. It reminded me of one of my favourite YA fantasies of all time Entwined by Heather Dixon Wallwork, which is based on the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale. I wondered, due to the number of siblings and their tendency to slip away from their (over-)protector by travelling through a secret and magical tunnel to have their own introverted version of a party, if this book was at all inspired by the same fairy tale, but I think the similarities are just coincidences. Derry loves her siblings and has an individual relationship with each one, and boy am I ever a sucker for the found family trope, I just adore it. I love how Derry even acknowledged that it took years for the strangers living in the same house to actually become siblings, I just think that concept is so precious.
The worldbuilding was really great a well. I felt like there were very strong rules around the magic system, even if there were some unanswered questions around other aspects of the world. The siblings weren’t necessarily aware of how far their power could grow, since their guardian was an emotionally abusive asshole. Speaking of which, I really liked how Hollowell approached this, with Derry aware that was being manipulated, but still unable to break free for a large amount of the novel. it was really great character development, and it was easy to empathise with Derry and her feeling of being trapped in an unlocked room that she COULD walk out of… if she wasn’t so dependent on this emotionally abusive asshole.
And that’s why I love YA, because Derry was still a teen, her emotional development and confidence was not at the level it would be as an adult. I feel like this story would not work so well if it was a book starring all adult characters, so I feel like not only does it fit into the YA space but it stands strongly as part of the YA canon. Yay!
The only problem I had with this book was what I perceive to be a inconsistency that cropped up as part of the climax. It was to do with a characters’ magic and the world building, so I’m going to put it into a spoiler: View Spoiler »For the entire novel we were told Derry had to be touching the earth to summon her plants, and the plants grew from the earth., We saw this over and over, that her magic was definitely physically linked to the ground, the earth, the soil, and the plants that grew from it. She needed to be touching the soil to summon her plants. At the climax, Derry can suddenly push her hand through someone’s chest (how?? she’s not super strong!?), and summon plants from inside a person’s body, and that just doesn’t work for me because it is inconsistent with the entire rules of the magic system established all the way through the novel. She’s never done it before, it’s not part of her magic even with her training and growing, and the entire thing could have been rewritten so that instead of bursting from inside a person, her plants still attacked and forced their way inside. I just… it was inconsistent with what had been pretty solidly established. « Hide Spoiler
Apart from that, I really enjoyed this book and I would love to read Hollowell’s next one.