Book Review: A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 14th, 2021
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

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.

A Dark and Starless Forest is a solid novel that falls prey to some typical issues in a debut novel.

The two biggest issues I found in the novel were the pacing and the themes. The pacing dragged in the middle and it seemed Hollowell wasn’t quite sure what she needed to have Derry do. The plot needed to have Derry act in a certain way, so she did, but it didn’t necessarily make sense with the events happening in said plot. The sense of urgency at having two of her sisters missing never quite sticks, since Derry and the rest of her siblings are mostly unable to go out and look for them and so have to continue living their lives as normal. Although Derry does ignore this rule, her forays into the forest become more about growing her magical powers than it does finding her sisters. Hollowell does try to explain in the story why the siblings mostly have to stay in the house, but it’s not quite good enough reasoning.

The themes were close to being pinned down, but another draft of the novel would have made them clearer. Derry is surrounded by two main enemies: Frank, her adoptive father who’s teaching her and her siblings how to control their magic for possibly dark purposes, and the forest that surrounds the house they live in. The atmosphere of the house was claustrophobic and oppressive, but the forest lacked the same danger and darkness. Hollowell clearly tries to state that both Frank and the forest want to use the girls for their own ends, but she doesn’t quite get there in regards to the forest.

Derry is a character that some readers will probably dislike, as she’s mostly passive and reacts to things instead of causing things to happen, and she’s avoidant of the facts staring her in the face. However I was fine with this, as Derry is living in a situation that’s almost a cult. Her family is completely cut off from the rest of the world, and whatever they know about it, they learn from Frank. Frank is emotionally abusive and gaslights the siblings often, and Derry, as a sixteen year old girl who’s had to view Frank as a parental figure, is realistic in her reluctance to realize and accept that Frank is dangerous and harmful.

While the bond between Derry and most of her siblings is evident, the siblings themselves are too numerous and subsequently their characters fall to the wayside. A couple stand out, like Elle, Jane, and Winnie, while others were little more than names and attributes. I do applaud Hollowell for making her cast a good representation of diversity, but some of that was integrated into the novel better than others, such as Brooke’s deafness being dealt with by all the siblings using ASL for a good chunk of the novel.

Personally, I will say that as a fat woman, it was a relief to read about a fat main character and never have her weight come up as anything other than a neutral description of herself. There are no fat jokes, no one harms her because she’s fat or uses her fatness to harm her. Derry simply exists as a fat girl, and that was wonderful.

There was enough that I liked in A Dark and Starless Forest that I’ll likely read what Hollowell writes next. Most of the problems in this novel are either debut issues or stylistic choices that some readers may not gel with, such as the worldbuilding beyond the house and the forest being thin to non-existent. Readers looking for a richly detailed contemporary fantasy won’t find it here, but they will find a story about a girl discovering her magic and saving her siblings from an abusive man, and that’s a story worth reading even with the issues.

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