Author: Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (twitter)
UK Publisher: Farrago
Genre: Fantasy, humour
Magic is forbidden in Myrsina, along with various other abominations, such as girls doing maths. This is bad news for Gretel Mudd, who doesn’t perform magic, but does know a lot of maths. When the sinister masked Huntsmen accuse Gretel of witchcraft, she is forced to flee into the neighbouring Darkwood, where witches and monsters dwell.
There, she happens upon Buttercup, a witch who can’t help turning things into gingerbread, Jack Trott, who can make plants grow at will, the White Knight with her band of dwarves and a talking spider called Trevor. These aren’t the terrifying villains she’s been warned about all her life. They’re actually quite nice. Well… most of them.
With the Huntsmen on the warpath, Gretel must act fast to save both the Darkwood and her home village, while unravelling the rhetoric and lies that have demonised magical beings for far too long.
There’s been a real trend for grimdark in fantasy fiction over the last few years, and it has produced some amazing work, but with the final Discworld novel published in 2015, it does leave one wondering where the lighter side of fantasy fiction is going to head next. Of course, to live up to Pratchett’s name is a tall order indeed, but I feel that any author who looks to bring some humour to the genre should be encouraged – because, as with any genre, there’s a lot of fun in lovingly pointing out the ridiculous. Farrago was mentioned in my blog post on commissioning last month, and they are a specialist humour publisher, including sections specifically for genre humour. Darkwood came up on Netgalley, and I am a sucker for a fairy tale retelling, so I requested it immediately.
Reading this book felt a little bit as if someone had taken a panto and turned it into a novel, but with a decent side of social and political allegory built in. Given as the author has written for The News Quiz and The Now Show, that’s not entirely surprising, and neither is Hutchinson Crouch’s talent for the ridiculous, delivered deadpan, and surprising a laugh out of you. Certainly towards the end of the book it’s very clear there are some parallels to be drawn between today’s jingoistic hate-based politics and how they can be both insidious and harmful, and also a strong message on how diversity should be celebrated and encouraged. There’s even a little dig at fake news and propaganda, as well as the hypocrisy of politicians who decry things as evil for everyone, except where it inconveniences them personally.
The plot is simple enough – Gretel is driven out of the Darkwood after being mistaken for a witch, when in reality she’s just very good at maths. There she meets a witch who accidentally turns things into cake and as such lives in a cake house, a talking spider, a boy who can grow plants like beanstalks, and a warrior in armour with a band of seven aggressive dwarves. Meanwhile her brother, Hansel, who is actually a witch, is left in the village to deal with the fallout. The Huntsmen aren’t satisfied with just letting the witches live in the Darkwood, however, and start to make plans to attack it and all the creatures within it, meaning that war is on its way.
For me, where the book was strongest were the scenes set in the village of Nearby (which I pointedly pronounced as “Near-bee” like it was a village in rural Yorkshire because I thought that made it even funnier). There’s a real sense of a small village, where everyone knows each other, and everyone has their own petty squabbles, right up until someone from elsewhere comes to sort things out, and then they all unite and turn on the outsider.
I’ve mentioned before how much I love scenes of group chaos when someone else is desperately trying to grasp control of the situation with no idea what is going on. The prime example of this was when the Huntsman first arrives in the village and finds everyone bickering over everything else instead of being appropriately cowed by his authority. I also particularly loved the introductory chapters, where we get a sense of how the village has received the orders about how to deal with witches, and followed them in letter if not entirely in spirit. “Witches” are routinely ducked, but the ducking stools are set up in a nice, warm bit of the river, and local women use it as an opportunity for a good scrub, pretending to talk to animals so they can have a good wash whilst villagers hold the soap for them, and shout to ask for repentance, and also if the water temperature is okay. I also cackled at the exchange between Gretel and her stepmother, when her stepmother asks how many times she’s told her not to do maths and Gretel plaintively replies, “I don’t know, you won’t let me count!”
The Darkwood itself is ripe ground for more puns, although I wish perhaps we’d had more time to see Gretel exploring it and finding her feet. She stumbles through it in fear and then has a few excursions which bring her back, inevitably, to the village. I would have loved to have seen more of her getting to know the other magical creatures in the forest, building relationships and trust, and carving out her own niche. I don’t necessarily think there’s anything I would sacrifice in the existing narrative for that, but perhaps if the book had been a little longer then we could have enjoyed a more leisurely exploration of the forest denizens, and start to see the community there in the same way we did the villagers. As it was, we got a brief introduction to a unicorn, a couple of swamp mermaids and some pixies, but there is talk of wyverns and ogres and manticore in the trees, all able to talk and all with their own quirks and personalities and ongoing arguments. It could have been a delightful meeting of two chaotic tribes.
This is the first in a series, so I’m hoping we get more time developing that as the books progress – not least because two further areas of the wood have been set up as “no-go zones”, one with a bear witch (Goldilocks?) and one with a wolf witch (Red Riding Hood, surely), as well as the Huntsmen whose egos have been terribly bruised. There’s something a little bit Revolting Rhymes in the reimagining of these fairy tales, and a little bit Once Upon a Time in the bringing the characters together – only Hutchinson Crouch goes back to the stripped back core of the stories and then builds them up into something that fits together well and creates her own lore, instead of smashing together a load of Disney interpretations and trying to make sense of the garbled outcome (I don’t like Once Upon A Time). I think my analogy of a panto is best – the plot and delivery are suitable for a huge variety of ages, and each age group will get something different out of it, whilst the whole thing is gleefully anarchic in its tone and it just feels like a great romp.
- A funny, enjoyable, easy-to-read romp through various fairy tales, which frankly would make an excellent panto, and has something for everyone.
- I’m ashamed that it took me until halfway through the book to get the pun on the spider who thinks he’s a spy. A SPYder. Good grief @ me.
- I also love how, despite apparently playing against fairy tale expectations, Darkwood actually utilises older character tropes. Gretel is clever and bold, as she was in the original story and as many other fairy tale heroines were (The Snow Queen, for example, or The Seven Ravens), whilst Hansel’s gentle and caring nature harks back to the tradition of the simple and kind protagonist who wins through being gentle, and shows Hansel as the other kind of hero (Dick Whittington, or The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship) rather than a forceful warrior prince. The perception can often be that fairy tales play into specific heteronormative gender roles, but whilst there are many that do (particularly those which have been adapted and sanitised and sold again and again), there are so many which promote the very traits shown here – the girls riding to the rescue using their wits, and the boys triumphing by being kind and gentle.
Rating: 4/5 – as this is the first in the series, I want to reserve my judgement for the full run, and I do wish there had been more time for Gretel to explore and build up the community in the Darkwood, but it’s all round good fun as it is.