Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)

5 stars

So I picked this book up on a whim from the library having fallen in love with the style of illustration on a brief flick through. I had seen some of Carroll’s illustrations and short comics online before and knew that her strength seemed to be in dark otherworldly stories and folklore, which, happily, is also one of my favourite genres to read.

This is a collection of 5 graphic short stories set in what seems to be a timeframe before, during and just after the Victorian era. I don’t want to go into too much detail about each of the stories, I feel it would ruin the spine tingling joy of reading them for the first time. I will, however, say that they’re all centred around the occult and the bizarre liminal state of the deep dark woods. Three books came to mind whilst I was reading it, not necessarily because they are similar storywise, but because they gave me a similar feeling of the loneliness and emptiness of the deep woods: ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter, ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik and ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden, all books that I happen to adore.

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The art is gorgeous, the lines incredible, deceptively simple and perfect for the mood of the stories told. There are couple of pages that I could just stare at for hours. It’s the kind of stylisation that really makes you want to push your own art more to the limits.

Don’t go into this book expecting that all your questions will be answered, because you’ll just end up disappointed. The beauty of the stories and, indeed, the eeriness of the collection is definitely one rooted in the unknown and the unexplainable. If you’re the sort of person who finds the unknown too distressing then this book probably isn’t for you. I’d also put a big warning on this for people who can’t deal with body or eye horror!

It’s a fairly short read, it only took me about an hour, and that’s with me lingering open mouthed over several pages, but if you’re able to get your hands on it then I’d definitely recommend a read…though maybe not when on your own in the house.

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Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

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Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from.

When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes.

During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences.

From the author of The Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.”

(47North)

I received a copy from the publisher in return for an honest review and, I will be completely honest with you here, I may have let out the most ungainly little squeal when I got my hands on it. I’m already a huge fan of Holmberg’s ‘The Paper Magician’ series, loving the strange magic systems she builds and the whimsical quality she brings to her worlds. I admit, I was already ready to love this book, and it didn’t disappoint me.

Plot

I was not expecting this book to be as dark as it was! Admittedly, just from reading the premise I should have realised it wouldn’t be cotton candy and magnolias but it had this gorgeous creepy folklore vibe that was unexpected. I don’t know, I think I saw it was about cakes and blanked out that cakes can totally be used for evil, à la Hansel and Gretel. The juxtaposition of the opening moments, with the heady scent of cake baking, to the following chapters where the protagonist is beaten, bound in a burlap sac and sold as a slave is so jarring, it has the vicious quality of a true fairy tale.

Allemas, her master, is a brutal captor and sinister as hell. Maire’s situation, imprisoned in his home, starving, forced to complete suspect tasks all in the hope of learning a scrap of information about her past life is just so unsettling and sad. Indeed, you begin to hope and wish, just as Maire, that Fyel, her resident ‘ghost’ companion, can just come and whisk her away from this hideous situation.

I’m wary of giving too much away, part of the joy was watching everything unfold and see how everything fell together. I will say that I found the epilogue a little disappointing, I would have preferred for it to end ambiguously at the end of the final chapter. I’ll be interested to know if any of you felt the same.

Characters

I love, love, love Maire. For all her gentle kindness she is wonderfully strong and decisive. She manages every horror that comes at her and is just a true survivor. Also, she didn’t make any decisions that made me want to throw the book against the wall, so for that I’m very grateful.

Fyel is…Fyel’s story is so sad. As part of my medical training I’ve spent a lot of time on wards with older people. Fyel reminds me of the husbands or wives that sit by the bedside of the loved ones as they fall in and out of lucidity, gentle and patient. I’d just quite like him to be happy.

Allemas is wonderfully weird. I love that he’s more of a chaotic evil, starving Mairie because he forgets she needs to eat, rather than out of maliciousness. His motivations aren’t immediately obvious, I love that the reader is kept in the dark as much as Maire. It’s all the more satisfying when you read the conclusion.

Writing

Holmberg’s style is fluid and flowery, which I’m rather fond of. Admittedly, it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s all part of the delicate feel that permeates the book, wonderful for reading out in the open or as your lids are closing for the evening.

‘My mind flutters from one idea to the next. Maybe I should make my tart of strength, infusing it with vigor by focusing on the pull in my biceps as I cut and cut and cut the dough. Or maybe I should do something lighter, such as cheer, or something new, like nostalgia. Then again, part of me wishes to be daring, to think of passionate things, of warm caresses in the night and newlyweds and Cleric Tuck’s lips on my neck.’

It suits the feel of the book and the character of Maire who has this fae, unearthly feeling about her.

Worldbuilding

Initially it feels like you could be in any or many fantasy worlds, though I admit the baking magic is new and fresh. But this feeling of familiarity fades rather fast as the story progresses. There’s a fascinating biblical feel to it that I wasn’t expecting, but if you, like me, are not Christian then don’t let it put you off, it’s a conceptual link more than anything.

Conclusion

All in all, I loved this book. It was everything I wanted to be, smooth and beautifully readable. I sat down with the intention of reading a few chapters and devoured the entire thing. So, if you like a little whimsy with your escapism or are a bit of a folklore fiend (or enjoyed the Paper Magician Trilogy) I’d definitely pick it up for summer reading. I’d recommend a grassy park and a hot sweet cup of tea to go with it.

4.5 Stars

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