Monday, February 26, 2024

Review: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

 A creepy fairytale story with its eye on more than the just magic, mystery and missing children.

When the cover of a book has animals with their skulls out on it, I feel like the audience is probably well-primed for the kinda gross - or at the very least rather unsettling - events that are about to unfold. Because - spoilers - this is not a story about a happy fun man who has a meat-and-sundries shop in an enchanting woodland paradise. These woods are creepy. So do go into it with that in mind.

That being said, Mohamed has managed to do the thing I always appreciate when authors do - she's stayed on the near side of the horror line - it's going to leave you feeling a bit ill at ease, but it never fully breaks out into the full on scary, the "guess it's time for the nightmares", actually horror-horror. And, because I am a great coward to the very depths of my soul, this is perfect for me. I want some horrible skull-creatures, I want nastiness... but only up to a point. The Butcher of the Forest takes me a fair way towards the edge of that line, but never threatens to step across it.

What it does do is give us a very good fairytale feeling story of a journey into a wood that might also be another wood, in another place, or no place at all, inhabited by creatures that aren't totally within the human scope of understanding, at least in the traditional sense. Unless you're Veris, our protagonist. Veris went into the wood a long time ago to fetch back a child that had disappeared there, something no one else had managed to do, because Veris Knows things. Not big, grand magics, but just enough to give her the wisdom and sense to get in and get out with what she came for. Much good though it may have done her. Now, many years later, she's been asked - well, not exactly asked but we'll come back to that - to go and do it all again, to fetch back another two children lost to the dangers of the North Forest, a Forest no one in the village goes into, and in which any lost children are simply considered dead. The North Forest is not to be messed with.

But when the two children lost in there are the children of the Tyrant? The Tyrant who knows you successfully made that trip once before? Well, sometimes heroism isn't a choice you get to make for yourself. Sometimes someone has decided your heroics are their due, and there's not much you can really do about that.

Which brings us to the core of what's so good about The Butcher of the Forest as a story - it's a story that understands the place a person may be forced to occupy, in the sort of world that so many fantasy stories like to draw on. Because Veris lives in a village - a land - occupied by the Tyrant. His name isn't ironic. And through her musings on her own past, and the events of the story as we witness them, we see a much better appreciation of what that might mean than I have come to expect of pseudo-medieval fantasy. Not so much in the understanding that social hierarchies exist, which is often covered perfectly well, but in the understanding of the layerings of explicit and implicit in the power dynamics that fuel them, and critically, in the legacy of what it took to get the world to that place.

Veris remembers the war that brought the Tyrant to power here. Veris remembers the cost - especially to her personally. The cost to her family and her body. Mohamed is perfectly blunt in what that conquest will have meant, and keeps on meaning, in the family that is a woman in her forties, her aunt in her 70s and her grandfather pushing 100 forming a household together, with the obvious gaping wounds of missing family members. And so, when Veris is picked up with some lack of courtesy at an inhospitable hours and pushed to her knees before the tyrant, there is no question of dramatic resistance. This power is a power to be suffered through and survived, if you can. It asks too much but you have to obey nonetheless.

Seeing that just written plainly on the page, in every act and choice of the heroine was just... kinda powerful. And just as grim as any horrible skull creature the woods had to offer.

And it gets better, because the children Veris is being sent in to rescue are the Tyrant's own. This man who has done such harm to her people, who threatens her family so she'll do this thing for him that no one else has done. A lot of the story has an undercurrent to it of Veris' torn emotions - her hatred of this man, her knowledge of what he has done... against the as-yet innocent of his children. They may well grow up to be their own monsters, they may well already be being shaped into them, but as yet... as yet? They're innocent. They are not the owners of their father's crimes. But they are part of the system as it is. They are its inheritors. They are an intrinsic part of a system that is anything but innocent itself. There is nothing but complexity to their place in relation to Veris in this world.

So it is this constant musing on that tension that underlies the whole of Veris' story in this book. She finds herself caught between the poles of resentment and understanding, as well as the past and the present, as her trip into the dangerous lands inside the North Forest naturally summon memories of her last trip.

The narrative threads through these moments of the past delicately, with a measured pace, so it takes much of the story to fully understand the story that came before, and its full significance. The moment when every piece finally clicks into place does not feel like a revelation, merely a moment of satisfied understanding, because those foundations have been so carefully built as we went the whole way along.

But this tension, this satisfying weaving of opposing points, would not work nearly so well were not Veris such a good character to infest the point of view of. She's already a rare thing in being a heroine in her 40s - I do love to see a fully adult women still being allowed to be the focus of a story - but she's also just someone with a relatable pragmatism, as well as a realistic backstory, in that she truly feels like she has one. There are not many pages for this story to unfold across, but Mohamed dedicates enough page space within them to give Veris the very real sense of being a whole person, a person with a life that has happened before this, and for whom that past has real effects, writ both large and small, on how she interacts with the present. It feels relevant to her words, her actions, her choices throughout, and makes her feel so beautifully realised, especially alongside her pragmatism, her wisdom to know which are the battles she cannot fight and must resign herself to suffer through. There's a weariness to those decisions, the sense of a big sigh just being held back, that does a great deal of work in making me like her.

Is she a heroine though? It's a question I came away from finishing this wondering, and not to Veris' detriment. But it is simply that, unlike so many stories, she has ended up in this role through no agency of her own. It's a story that has happened to her, even as she is the one suffering it. Does that make her more the heroine than in stories where the protagonist's chose their battles? Or less? I don't know. But that lingering pondering... that too is a joy of the book.

Which leads me onto the ending... which I won't spoil. But I can say, without spoilers, that when you get there, you realise quite what the scope of this story is, and that, in one framing, it could merely be the prelude to another, different story. I kind of hope that story never gets written though. I enjoy that this exists as that prelude, and that there's a big wide gulf of potentiality hovering around the ending at what the "and then?" could be. It is forever left as an exercise of the reader to wonder and to dream it. Mohamed has left us a framework, and we can find our own answers within it, if we want to spend the time doing so (I certainly have).

All in all, The Butcher of the Forest is a wonderful novella that gives us a great (creepy - did I mention creepy?) story, but with a real meat of thoughtfulness under the skin, that sometimes peeps through the gaping wounds to give us a glimpse of what lies beneath. It's got the nastiness that fairytales often have, as well as a very offhand, pragmatic approach to magic that is unwilling to explain it because it simply does not need an explanation. When the horrible skull creature is coming after you, you don't have time to wonder exactly how it works, after all. The wondering is saved for the important things - how fucked up the world is under the bootheel of a tyrant, and the lingering horrors of one's own existence. Just how I like it.


The Math

Highlights: over 40s women allowed to have adventures (even if they don't personally want them), political musings, creepy horrible skull creatures

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Premee Mohamed, The Butcher of the Forest, [Tor 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.