It's been a little while since The Darkest Part of the Forest came out. I bought it when Holly Black did an event at Brookline Booksmith with Sarah Rees Brennan (to whom the book is dedicated), but I only got around to actually reading it when I was in Maine last week. This is what happens when I decide to be a responsible adult and read more nonfiction instead of YA fantasy all the time. But I've recently realized that I really can't be giving up my YA fantasy too much, because being alone in my head with only my head and things that have happened in reality is bad for my mental health.
Anyway. The Darkest Part of the Forest takes place in a town called Fairfold, where everyone knows that fairies are real, because there's a boy with horns asleep in a glass coffin in the woods next to the town. He's been there for generations and the glass never breaks, although if you try too hard to break it terrible things might happen to you. The townsfolk know how dangerous the fairies are but pretend that it's all OK because if anything bad happens to someone they were acting like a stupid tourist, and no one thinks too closely about the morality of sacrificing tourists to the whims of the fairies, especially when most of the town's economy depends on them.
Our protagonist is a teenage girl named Hazel, who used to hunt bad fairies with her musically gifted brother, Ben, back when they were kids. When I use the term "musically gifted" here, it's not a figure of speech; it was a gift from a fairy given to Ben when he was a baby. But then something happened, and Hazel and Ben have not gone bad-fairy-hunting in a long time. Instead, Ben goes on bad internet dates with inappropriate dudes, and Hazel makes out with boys at parties and tries not to have any residual feelings from her childhood crush on her classmate Jack, who is actually a changeling. Jack's mom managed to get her real child back but hung onto Jack to raise as well out of sheer outrage that the fairies had pulled this BS on a town resident.
The main plot kicks off when the horned boy in the glass coffin wakes up one day, and Hazel wakes up in the morning covered in mud with glass splinters in her fingers. Hazel, Ben, and Jack wind up on a multi-pronged quest to find the horned boy, figure out what's happened to Hazel's nights, defeat the Alderking and his increasingly misbehaving subjects, suss out some sort of working relationship between Jack and both his moms, and unravel the mystery of the monster Sorrow that's haunting the town. It's a lot to get done in 300 pages, but that's OK.
Although I liked the Curse Workers series and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown better than the Tithe series, it's really, really great to see Holly Black take on fairies again. It's not at all repetitive or derivative of the Tithe books; it's possible that they could take place in the same universe, but it's a fresh, new story about love and power and ambition and the compromises communities make with the dark things within themselves for the sake of cohesion. (It does have a couple recurring Holly Black tropes, like parents who love their children in their own way but are also conveniently The Worst at parenting, and lots of teen drinking.) It's also just a fast, whimsical, romantic read, perfect for summer lakeside reading, with enough action and darkness and stuff to feel like it's engaging with the human condition in some way, but mostly is just about a girl running around the woods with an awesome sword trying to solve magical dangers. So really exactly the sort of thing I wanted.