Author: Jamie Lackey
Title: The Forest God
A wonderful little story reminiscent of works by Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, The Forest God is a feel-good literary adventure full of witches, quests, lord’s sons, love and duty. Who wouldn’t want to read one of those? 😊
Jamie Lackey is a name I hadn’t encountered before, and I requested The Forest God from NetGalley on a whim, my decision based mostly on the cover (I know, and I’m not repentant!) It turned out to be a surprisingly good decision, for Lackey’s novella is just a perfect read for a lazy, warm evening. With the length of less than a hundred pages there is not much space within for character development, worldbuilding and action, and yet somehow Lackey manages to cram a bit of all three – with the infallible aid of fairy tales. The Forest God offers a new retelling of a very old tale, and embellishes it with some delightful twists, subtle irony, and plenty of enthusiasm for the subject matter. But let’s start at the beginning.
The Forest God reincarnates once again – this time into the body of a hare. He’s been many creatures before, predators and prey, and he had tasted and given blood in the unending circle of life and death. Even the body of hare is not alien to him, and if there’s one thing he knows about it is that it never lasts long – so he should seize the day and gorge on sun ripened strawberries as if his life depended on it. As a matter of fact, it does.
It does, because the idle Young Lord Hugh from the nearby castle finally finds something that arouses his curiosity – and while looking for answers concerning a family mystery, he decides to hunt the hare as an offering to the village Witch. It certainly doesn’t help the hare’s case that he is caught eating the Witch’s strawberries – strawberries left precisely for him, though Hugh has no way of knowing it.
And so, the wounded hare and the unlucky Young Lord end up in the care of the resentful Apprentice Witch Margery – because the current Witch left for business known only to herself and did not deign to leave information concerning either her whereabouts or the time of her return. The cottage in the woods suddenly becomes very crowded indeed, and something needs to be done about it all.
So the story begins; it is formulaic, without a doubt, but comfortably so. The worn tracks of countless other fairy tales are clearly followed and cherished in their familiarity. There is a feeling of not belonging, of inadequacy, of chafing against vague loss of individual choice. There is a quest, made of three seemingly simple tasks which obviously prove to be devilishly hard. There is a budding young love, which cannot be not forbidden. A family secret, tying into the lives of all in a myriad of unforeseen ways. A difference of perspective growing between the young and the old – for the way to right old wrongs inevitably leads away from personal happiness. Or maybe not? Can happiness be found in duty and the choices not made?
The light humour and whimsy infusing this tale make it a splendidly pleasant read. The Forest God, an incredibly old and ingeniously egotistic creature, in the incarnation of a common hare finds new, unexpected delights in life. He starts to appreciate little things – like cuddling, or loving care, or the warm, soft bed and strawberries every breakfast. But he also learns a lot about those strange creatures called humans – and while they might be quite irritating, there might be nothing so wonderfully pleasant in the world as those smart soft fingers scratching behind his ear just so.
“The Forest God would have never before suspected that simple domesticity could be so pleasant. It had never understood humans before, had never gained any insight into why they lived as they did. But now it could see the appeal of a warm hearth, of regular meals, of the company of loved ones.”
The Forest God is pleasantly surprised by these new discoveries. But is this change of perspective a matter of this furry, languorous vessel giving shape to the amorphous contents of his soul? Or is simply the result of a welcome change of pace, a breather from the endless circle of life where prey tries to escape the predator, and predator hunts it mercilessly, both doing their best to survive? Will this unexpected understanding and benevolence survive beyond the current incarnation? Or will it become a hazy memory from a different life?
I feel obliged to add that if you’re expecting Cernunnos or some other ruthless, mysterious forest deity here, you will be disappointed. Lackey’s Forest God is a being mostly reminiscent of Pratchett’s Herne the Hunted, the god of small furry creatures:
“Herne the Hunted, god of the chased, crept through the bushes and wished fervently that gods had gods.”
Lackey’s Forest God might not reach these levels of subtle irony, but nevertheless he’s still quite adorable in all his fluffy glory. 😀
Questions of individual choice, of duty and love, of responsibility toward others, and of old traditions and new discoveries are neatly interwoven into the familiar narrative. The story itself feels timeless – and while it offers nothing original, it still offers a lot. An invitation to once again tread old grounds but in a new mood, with a slightly changed perspective, influenced by other works and writers.
I enjoyed The Forest God a lot. Like Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows (though not so dark), or Tchaikovsky’s Made Things (though less ingenious) Lackey’s The Forest God is one of the YAH (Young-At-Heart) stories that anyone can enjoy – even if the marketing would love to push it into the MG/YA category. If there’s one thing that comes off as heavy-handed is the beauty/ugliness issue – and the related question of stigma. While I understand where the author comes from and why she chose to include this topic in her little fairy tale, it is the one thing that makes an impression of something rushed and half-baked; a half-hearted attempt to make the story more relevant/sellable in our beauty-obsessed times, perhaps? To me, it feels unnecessary and a bit disruptive – but it’s a small enough criticism in the otherwise delightful trifle of a read. As an additional bonus, that cover is gorgeous! 🙂
I received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks!