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The Devil in a Forest

The Devil in a Forest is a short (208 page) fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe, of Shadow of the Torturer and Book of the New Sun fame. It's also one of my favourite books, even though I have only read it a few times.

The reason that the book has always resonated with me is its almost claustrophobic focus. Set in an unnamed forest, it is a story with only a few characters, most of whom are close-to, but not-quite, archetypes or ciphers. It has few locations; the village in the forest (with an inn, a forge, a chapel and a few craftsmen), the charcoal burner's settlements, an ancient stone monument, the witch's house, the river, the road, St Agnes' Shrine, and later on, the city. Several of the locations are bit parts, with much of the story taking place in the village itself as the inhabitants come to terms with the decisions that they have taken.

The protagonist is a weaver's apprentice called Mark. Aged fourteen, this could almost be a coming-of-age tale for him, but it is far darker than that. Mostly, Mark is buffeted between the various other characters in the tale, and has to make choices that will determine hist future. He is often confused, unsure and reactive, and all the more human for it.

The decisions taken by the village drive the story, upsetting the equilibrium of this small and limited world. The village elders – the Abbé, the craftsmen, but not the Innkeeper – decide to do something about Watt the Outlaw as his robbery and murder of travellers and pilgrims threaten the income of the village as people have stopped visiting St Agnes' Fountain. (Yes, the more astute of you will have spotted that the story references the Christmas Carol Good King Wenceleslas). But some of the villagers are sympathetic with Watt, and treachery and mixed alliances are the order of the day. Mixing with this is the ambiguous Mother Cloot and a party of soldiers hunting for Watt.

It's a simple story where you never feel certain about what will happen next. Wolfe isn't afraid of killing characters, so you never feel safe. The story is very much driven from the protagonist's perspective, limiting your knowledge to that of the character. Altogether, it's a lovely book.