In this contemporary fantasy, the grieving biographer of a Victorian fantasist finds himself slipping inexorably into the supernatural world that consumed his subject. Failed father, failed husband, and failed scholar, Charles Hayden hopes to put his life back together with a new project: a biography of Caedmon Hollow, the long-dead author of a legendary Victorian children’s book, In the Night Wood, and forebear of his wife, Erin. Deep in mourning from the loss of their young daughter, they pack up their American lives, Erin gives up her legal practice, and the couple settles in Hollow’s remote Yorkshire mansion. In the neighboring village, Charles meets a woman he might have loved, a child who could have been his own daughter, and the ghost of a self he hoped to bury. Erin, paralyzed by her grief, immerses herself in pills and painting images of a horned terror in the woods. In the primeval forest surrounding Caedmon Hollow’s ancestral home, an ancient power is stirring, a long-forgotten king who haunts the Haydens’ dreams. And every morning the fringe of darkling trees presses closer. Soon enough, Charles and Erin will venture into the night wood. Soon enough, they’ll learn that the darkness under the trees is but a shadow of the darkness that waits inside us all.
I requested this book months ago on NetGalley in the beginning of October, so it’s about time I finally got around to it. I remembered hardly anything from the synopsis, just that it was fantasy and had something to do with a mysterious forest, and decided to start reading it mostly blind. Because of that, I was surprised that this was a contemporary fantasy set in the real world but the surprise was a pleasant one.
There were things I noticed immediately about the style of writing—it was very atmospheric but bordered on wordy with some run on sentences. However, I ended up really enjoying the writing throughout. It did a fantastic job of making the Eorl Wood, or the Night Wood, seem so tangible, alluring and eerie. I love how the forest itself was written. It was personified, making it easy to imagine it as a conscious being looming over the village, luring people into its grasp. There were times when I thought similar descriptions and motifs were used too often but I understood why they were there and think they were effective in the end. The mystery of the forest was so intriguing, a little creepy and overall really well done. It was the forest of myths and folklore, teeming with secret histories and unknown threats. I loved it.
There were several heavier themes in this novel with the emotional complexities of grief within a marriage. The characters were very well written and believable though there was a lot of introspection and repetitive thoughts. Erin and Charles dealt with their grief completely differently but realistically, but I sometimes found myself frustrated with their inability to even talk to each other—especially Charles who seemed to choose to do nothing at every opportunity while his wife fell apart in front of him. But again, it was realistic. They weren’t really characters I loved or hated. I rooted for them in general and sympathized with them but they got to be a little tedious. The more I learned about Charles, the less I liked him.
I enjoyed the mystery of Caedmon Hollow, the author of the story within this book, and Charles’ journey into discovering more about him. All of these threads—the grief, the marriage, the forest, a missing girl in town, the way his own daughter died, and Caedmon Hollow—were woven together so well. There was an increasing sort of dread with the supernatural aspect of the story but also within their marriage as well as a building intensity with the strange lure of the forest. It was a slower book, but it felt as if everything was growing into something more pressing and worrying. While this was all building well, I found it sort of predictable. I hoped for a different outcome, but basically every big guess I made was correct. The ending was quite predictable, easy, and a bit of a cop-out. The whole book was spent building something up and it felt pointless in the end, wiped out by something improbably simple. I’d hoped to give this book a higher rating but the ending just brought the whole thing down.
This book was certainly entertaining. I enjoyed the mix of the emotional marriage and somewhat dull lives of the main characters with the strange, immersive world of the Night Wood. The writing was lush and atmospheric—I could nearly see the forest and hear the impish laughter of hidden creatures—and the mythology worked in was fantastic. This book could’ve been something great but it all led to rather predictable and disappointing outcomes.
Thanks for reading,
*I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*