#BookReview: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

#BookReview: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee MohamedThe Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on February 27, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

A world-weary woman races against the clock to rescue the children of a wrathful tyrant from a dangerous, otherworldly forest.
At the northern edge of a land ruled by a monstrous, foreign tyrant lies the wild forest known as the Elmever. The villagers know better than to let their children go near—once someone goes in, they never come back out.
No one knows the strange and terrifying traps of the Elmever better than Veris Thorn, the only person to ever rescue a child from the forest many years ago. When the Tyrant’s two young children go missing, Veris is commanded to enter the forest once more and bring them home safe. If Veris fails, the Tyrant will kill her; if she remains in the forest for longer than a day, she will be trapped forevermore.
So Veris will travel deep into the Elmever to face traps, riddles, and monsters at the behest of another monster. One misstep will cost everything.

My Review:

There’s no actual butcher in this forest, but it doesn’t need one. The forest is enough of a butcher all on its own. And the thing it’s already butchered, more than anything or anyone else, is Veris Thorn’s heart.

But that’s not where we start this story. We start the story in a place that seems all too typical of epic fantasy of the myth telling and retelling school. Because there’s a forest surrounding Veris’ village. A forest that none of the locals ever enter, day or night, because people who go into the forest do not come out again. Ever.

Except for Veris. Once upon a time, she went in after a child. And brought both herself and the child out again. Not safely, not easily, and ultimately not anything remotely like a happy ending. But still, once upon that time, Veris went in and came back out again.

The Tyrant who seems to have swallowed so much of Veris’ world, has Veris’ dragged out of her bed at dawn and brought before him still in her nightclothes. She doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know what she could have possibly done. All she knows is that she has no choice.

Because the Tyrant will kill her remaining family and burn the village they live in to the ground if she does not obey whatever he will demand of her. It’s who he is, it’s what he does, and it’s how he’s conquered the world.

But the Tyrant is also a father. A father whose children have gone missing into that terrible forest, because they are just at that age when children think they are more grownup than they are and want adventures more than they want to obey. Even to obey a terrifying Tyrant like their father.

It’s up to Veris, a middle-aged woman with one singular experience of surviving the forest, a few tools and bits of old and cobbled-together legends, and a desperate desire to save her family and her village from being burnt to a crisp to enter the forest one more time. And to come back out again with two children, safe and sound. Before a nightfall that she won’t even be able to see from inside the dense woods.

It’s an impossible quest, but it’s the only hope she has for her people. But to the Forest she’s the one that got away – and it will only let her back in this time so it can keep her – or something else she holds dear.

Escape Rating B: At first, the forest sounded a LOT like the forests in Middle Earth where some of the trees’ hearts have turned dark. The way that Veris describes the forest near her village is very like Merry’s descriptions of The Old Forest around the Shire.

So I was prepared for that kind of quest – which wasn’t at all what I got. Which is generally a good thing.

I was also confused because there is no ‘Butcher’ IN the forest, and it’s dubious whether any of the characters, at least so far, are the ‘Butcher’ OF the forest. Not that the Tyrant doesn’t butcher everything in his rapacious path, and won’t make an attempt at butchering the entire forest if it doesn’t give him back his children. Or at least his heir.

After all, situations like this one are just what the ‘spare’ is born for.

But the story isn’t quite any of the things I was expecting. In spite of – or perhaps because of the Tyrant’s oppression at the beginning and it’s promise overshadowing the whole journey every time Veris stumbles.

As much as all the admonitions about not eating or drinking in the Forest and not bargaining with the fey creatures who dwell there, this story is about a journey and not a destination. It’s a journey into, not the dark heart of the forest or even the dark heart of the Tyrant although both certainly exist. It’s about Veris’ journey to her own dark heart, with the two children as both goad and conscience, reminding her of her own deepest losses while forcing her to recognize that they are not responsible for the sins of their own father against hers, and are much too young to have yet committed sins of their own.

A lesson that is every bit as hard for Veris to bear as all the other lessons that the Forest intends to teach her – whether she wants to learn those lessons or not.

What kept niggling at me through my read of The Butcher of the Forest was that it reminded me, strongly and often, of something else that was not Middle Earth. And that, as it turns out, is the Sooz duology in Peter S. Beagle’s The Way Home, set in the world of The Last Unicorn.

But Veris is not Sooz. Veris is Molly Grue in the first book in Sooz’ story. Molly Grue is the mentor character who rescues Sooz on Sooz’ first quest and trains her to take her second quest alone. A quest very much like the one that young Eleanor is barely on the threshold of when The Butcher of the Forest shudders to a heartbreaking halt.

Because once upon a time, the Forest kept Veris’ only child – and Veris went into the Forest to get her back. Now, the Forest has held onto Eleanor’s only brother, and she is determined to repeat Veris’ journey. Whether she will also repeat Veris’ mistakes along the way is a tale that is hopefully yet to be told.

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