A Dark and Starless Forest

In A Dark and Starless Forest (2021), Sarah Hollowell has written a rare gift–a fat-positive YA fantasy that has something for everyone, except perhaps for cis white middle-aged men.

It’s written from Derry’s perspective–she is a fat, white teenager, one of nine multiracial siblings in an adoptive family headed by Frank, their guardian, Each of the siblings came to their house, hidden away in the woods, next to a lake, because they have magic. Frank calls them alchemists, and is helping each to learn how to use their magic and help it grow ,while protecting them from the outside world, which would call them witches. Each sibling’s magic is different–Derry can manifest plants; Winnie is telekinetic; Elle can heal; and Violet can change the appearance of things. They were each brought to live with Frank when their magic got to be too much for their parents to handle. One sibling is trans, another nonbinary, and another is deaf, so the siblings also use sign language.

Every Monday is a test to see how well their magic is growing; the siblings have chores every day; Dr. Sam comes monthly to examine them and prescribe the medicines they’re needed; on special occasions like birthdays they can watch one of seventeen movies they’re allowed. Otherwise they’re not allowed the internet or television, because, as Frank says “that way lies addiction.”

One night, Derry awakens to find that their oldest sibling, Jane, who is nineteen and shares a room with Derry, has disappeared. Jane had been with Derry a few weeks ago when they were in the forest, where they are not supposed to be, and something unmentionable happened. Jane’s disappearance sends the household into a tizzy. Derry goes at night to the forest to look for Jane, and instead meets Claire, who appears to be a ghost, and gives Derry just a bit of information every night.

Then Winnie disappears, too. And Derry and her siblings learn more about how they got there and why their parents never come visit after they’ve been dropped off with Frank. And they realize that what they accepted as his protection is likely also abuse.

The creepiness factor is perfect, and the mental and physical abuse very realistic, so that your heart aches for these kids, young adults who have been brainwashed and gaslit and taken advantage of. So they rely on the only people they can–each other.

As I noted first off, Derry is a fat girl and another of the siblings is described as chubby. It’s not a huge deal and is just part of who they are. None of the story is dependent on their fatness or any reaction to it. In fact, in the penultimate scene of the book, Derry delights in her size, noting that she is at least a hundred pounds heavier than the person she is fighting, who she doesn’t “think could move me” because she is “an immovable object.” Bravo, Sarah, for giving us this gem of a fat-positive YA fantasy!

Full disclosure: I’ve followed Sarah for a while on Twitter, and I was thrilled to learn that she’ll have another book published next year! And from her author page, I found this article she wrote that begins as a book review critical of the anti-fat bias found there, explaining how harmful it is, especially for teenagers, and calling for more fat positive books.

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