Gene Wolfe,
The Devil in a Forest
(Tom Doherty, 1976; Orb, 1996)

You know the phrase "You can't judge a book by its cover?" Well, sometimes you can't judge a book by the publisher's blurb on the back, either. Gene Wolfe's The Devil in a Forest proves the point well. This is not to say that the story you get is not good -- far from it, it is a very good story even if it is a bit dark. It is just not what the back promises you are getting.

"He lives deep in the forest in the time of King Wenceslas, in a village older than record. The young man's hero-worship of the charming highwayman Wat is tempered by growing suspicion of Wat's cold savagery, and his fear of the sorceous powers of Mother Cloot is tempered by her kindness. He must decide which of these powers to stand by in the coming battle between Good and Evil that not even his isolated village will be able to avoid."

I would love to know what book that is describing, because it is not The Devil in a Forest. Instead you get a story of a handful of villagers who get caught up in events beyond their control. It starts with the simple plan of getting the local highwayman to leave by helping him commit armed robbery. And Wat plays on the greed of a few of them masterfully. Creating a story of a rich pilgrim, he sends several people away so that he, Gloin, Matt and a char burner can rob Phillip the Cobbler.

And then of course things start to go wrong.

And it is the characters and how they interact with each other that makes everything work so well in this story. For instance, there are the brutish guards who work on the principle that the only way to get the full truth out of peasants is to beat them. There is also Mother Cloot, an evil witch, who constantly shows up to cause grief to others. (Falsely accusing someone of murder to have them hanged is NOT kindness -- especially when you know who really did it.) Add to that mix a minor noble who is seldom around, a group of char burners who attack the villagers for no known reason (until the end of the book, anyway, when a part of the reason is mentioned -- did I mention that Mother Cloot is evil?) and a Lord who wants to ignore part of the truth.

In the end, you have a tale of a young man's coming of age. A story where the Hero is tested by fire and in the end survives. And as such it is a story well worth the reading.

[ by Paul de Bruijn ]

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