A Dark and Starless Forest

Clarion. Sept. 2021. 368p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780358424413.
Gr 7 Up–Derry lives in a secluded house in the woods with her siblings and their protector, Frank. White, fat, 16-year-old Derry and her siblings fear Frank even as he reminds them that he took them in when no one—not even their parents—wanted them because of their magic. Derry and her siblings—eldest Jane (who is Black); Winnie (who is fat and white); Brooke (fat, Deaf, Mexican American); white twins Elle and Irene (Irene is trans); nonbinary, Mexican American Violet; and the youngest, identical Black twins Olivia and London—have fierce bonds among them. When two of them disappear, their protector blames the dense forest surrounding their home. As Derry learns more about him and her own magical affinity for growing real and imagined plants, Derry will have to decide how far she is willing to go to keep her loved ones safe. Despite each sibling having distinct magical abilities, this element of the story is largely set dressing for a blend of horror and suspense. The first-person narration amplifies the siblings’ isolation with a palpable fear of Frank and his punishments. Hollowell goes above and beyond to create an inclusive cast with some elements integrated into the narrative better than others (everyone’s use of ASL—designated by single quotes around signed dialogue—to communicate with Brooke). Derry’s quest to find her missing siblings and save all of them from Frank drives the story but leaves little room for character development of the other siblings who are often absent from the action and remain little more than names and attributes. Derry’s moral ambiguity is unresolved by the end of the story along with questions about worldbuilding and what will come next for all of the siblings.
VERDICT A dark, inclusive blend of horror and extremely light fantasy. Recommended for collections where horror is popular.

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