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.
Thank you to NetGalley and Clarion Books for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.
As soon as I saw this cover I knew I had to read this book! It’s not often you see plus-size women in fantasy (though it’s a bit more prevalent in YA than adult) and it’s even rarer for them to be on the cover! Apart from that, though, the premise gripped me, and I was not disappointed. A Dark and Starless Forest is a thrilling and dark tale, told from the point of view of Derry, a young girl living with seven other girls and one non-binary person ranging between nineteen and eight, all taken in by a man named Frank after their families couldn’t handle their magic abilities. The setting is our world, modern America, which initially surprised me since I had expected this to be set in a fantasy land, but I enjoyed the way Sarah Hollowell played with real history and culture and applied magic to it.
Frank has labelled his magic girls ‘alchemists’ because of the way the title of witch has led to death and persecution, yet Derry and her siblings are always looking for another word that will mean more to them, and there’s a really sweet habit Derry has of acknowledging when a word she’s used in her narration is a particularly strong one, showing the way she has scoured the dictionary over the years. The siblings are isolated both geographically – surrounded by a magic forest that keeps them in and others out – as well as mentally, with Frank keeping them away from the internet, newspapers, and any media not selected by him. Though he is strict, he has always protected his charges and warned them of the dangers of the outside world, so Derry swallows her frequent anger towards him until the night her sister Jane goes missing.
Derry and Jane had been to the forest before, and from Derry’s thoughts we know something terrible happened, something they have kept from the rest of the siblings, and Derry’s guilt spirals further as she realised this might have led Jane and then others to vanish between the trees. As the family begins to fray and Frank becomes more and more on edge, Hollowell does an excellent job of building tension and creating some very chilling scenes (for me anyway, but I don’t read much dark stuff so I’m sure some won’t find it chilling at all).
I won’t talk more about the plot, so you can enjoy that ride for yourself, but I do want to talk about some of the other things that stayed with me about this book. As I said at the start, having a fat protagonist is so important, and Derry talks both of feeling as if her body is too much at times, like when the bathtub is too small, and when she takes up space and feels powerful. There is quite a lot of other representation too; three of the siblings are African American, one is a Native American who is also deaf, one is a trans girl and one is non-binary. Having a deaf character means that a lot of the conversations between the siblings are done in ASL, and having Violet, the non-binary sibling, arriving at the house a little later than some means they have knowledge of terminology to define themselves, and they help others with finding their own labels, such as aromantic, or bisexual. I liked that the author included such things, and did it in a very natural way.
Overall, this is a story that will stay with me, and I think that it does something new and exciting with both YA and fantasy tropes. As far as I’m aware it’s a standalone, and it does have a satisfying conclusion, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for future works by Sarah Hollowell because she certainly knows how to tell a story!
Published: 14th September 2021 / 18th October 2021 (UK) by Clarion Books
Genre: YA, urban fantasy
Narration style: first person present tense, single point of view
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: blood, death, confinement, abuse, violence.