Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

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A copy of this classic was a gift from a talented friend of mine whose opinion I value, so clearly it had to go right to the top of my reading pile – and I’m not sorry that it did as it started my 2012 list on a really high point.

Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed – yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil.
Led by Fate into the timeless struggle were:devilintheforest
WAT the savage and charming highwayman…
MOTHER CLOOT the cunning and cruel possessor of mysterious powers…
BARROW MAN the awesome spirit of a long-dead warrior… and
MARK not yet totally seduced by Evil, not yet totally convinced by Good…

And there you have it – the back cover blurb. As you can see they did things slightly differently back in 1976 – for starters they didn’t see fit to tell you at least half the plot although there were lots of capital letters and slightly portentous pronouncements due to the Tolkein effect still rippling through the genre at the time. And the blurb gives no insight whatsoever as to what the book is actually about. Neither does the cover. I was expecting major battle scenes… nasty armoured beasties lurking around every tree… which simply doesn’t happen. It’s SO much better than that.

Told in third person limited pov from Mark’s viewpoint, this little book gives you a slice of the gritted business of surviving in an isolated community that has seen better times when their religious shrine brought in a steady stream of pilgrims. But now, thanks to the depredations of their very own highwayman, Wat, that trickle has all but dried up and everyone is having to tighten their belts. A lot.

Mark is an orphaned fourteen year old apprentice to the village weaver. Which means he often goes hungry and has learnt to take care of himself – something that stands him in good stead when a foray into the forest with the innkeeper’s daughter turns into a dark and dangerous adventure. Where his future and very soul is at stake…  Wolfe has a trick of utterly subsuming you into his created world. We accept that Mark spends a large chunk of time so hungry that his stomach gripes with the pain. That he has to always pick his words carefully to the adults around him, because there is no one who innately cares about him. We learn just how unnerving Mother Cloot’s behaviour can be – and what Mark does when he comes across a murdered man…

The huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between forces that he cannot hope to prevail against. All this occurs without an ounce of sentimentality and in just over 220 pages, Wolfe produces a gripping adventure that had me reading faaar into the night to discover what would happen to Mark, and Wat and Mother Cloot. The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect.

So Mark is less defiant and more accepting of the clear injustices that Life has dealt him; more suspicious of nearly everyone and their motives for being friendly; and very aware of the occult and dark forces in play around the village. Mother Cloot is a tough, wise old woman – and then something else a whole lot darker… As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I felt I had a far clearer understanding of what it meant to part of an underclass in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

As you might have gathered, this 1970’s offering mightily impressed me and confirmed what I’ve always known – that superb writing is timeless. If you enjoy excellent adventure Fantasy in an historical setting, then hunt down this little book – it’s worth the effort.
10/10

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