Release date: 3 October 2023
Synopsis: After the Forest is a dark and enchanting fantasy debut from Kell Woods that explores the repercussions of a childhood filled with magic and a young woman contending with the truth of “happily ever after.” Ginger. Honey. Cinnamon. Flour. Twenty years after the witch in the gingerbread house, Greta and Hans are struggling to get by. Their mother and stepmother are long dead, Hans is deeply in debt from gambling, and the countryside lies in ruin, its people starving in the aftermath of a brutal war. Greta has a secret, though: the witch's grimoire, secreted away and whispering in Greta's ear for the past two decades, and the recipe inside that makes the best gingerbread you've ever tasted. As long as she can bake, Greta can keep her small family afloat. But in a village full of superstition, Greta and her mysteriously addictive gingerbread, not to mention the rumors about her childhood misadventures, is a source of gossip and suspicion. And now, dark magic is returning to the woods and Greta's magic―magic she is still trying to understand―may be the only thing that can save her. If it doesn't kill her first.
If you love Katherine Arden, Juliet Marillier, and Alice Hoffman, you’ll love this book. Its subtle, enchanting, and woodsy atmosphere are so perfect for a spooky fall reading season. I loved the mystery and foreboding intricately woven throughout the story that, despite the slower pacing, still kept my attention hooked until the very end.
Fairy Tales are a bit of a reading desert for me. I cannot remember enjoying a retelling like this for a while. I often find myself hating retellings because many are just the same fairytale scene for scene with different characters or creatures with some kind of spin to them that is odd, grating, or completely ridiculous. It’s monotonous, to say the least. I’ve read great ones, to be sure, and enjoyed some, truly; but After the Forest possesses a magical quality I haven’t experienced since reading my last Marillier, McKillip, or Arden novel (about 6 months ago from the writing of this review).
We have in After the Forest a unique perspective of what happens to the siblings Hansel and Gretel (Hans and Greta for this story) after they survived the tumultuous time they spent in the witch’s cottage. Greta bakes to keep the family afloat, Hans gambles his money away, and the village folk are pyromaniacs out to get any woman they suspect is a witch. While Hans sinks deeper and deeper into debt, Greta’s gingerbread cookies continue to bewitch the townsfolk around her. When the village leader dies, his wife takes control over the town, and soon, people begin disappearing and not returning. Strangers show up in the village, and Greta must contend with violent townsfolk, suspicious newcomers, and a sinister witch who has begun to descend on the town, spreading darkness in her wake.
What could have been another bland retelling unfolds into more than what it seems. Readers don’t have to endure recycled material; they get to catch a glimpse of “happily ever after,” except, in true Grimm form, it’s not happy at all—its miserable and the fight’s not over yet. I also loved that all of the elements stay true to the source material. Same place, same time period, same people. Anyone who has every been curious about what happens after the children push the witch into the oven will be quite satisfied after reading this.
I’ve had such a pleasure reading more than one book this year that perfectly complements spooky season. After the Forest belongs solidly in the category of Spooky Reads, and is a perfect pick for relaxing in the fall air with a cup of whatever hot drink you prefer with something pumpkiny and candles everywhere. If you’re a fall person, it’ll be right up your bookish alley. If you’re lamenting the end of summer, it will certainly soothe your hangover for perfect summer nights with the sounds of crickets and cicadas all around. This book will be in the OwlCrate September Adult and Illumicrate October boxes. If you have the budget, I’d sign up or get on the waitlist as soon as possible. I don’t think you’ll want to miss this gem.
My profuse thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for the ALC, for which I willingly (and heartily) give my own, honest opinion.