Jane has a strange ability to enter a world even she doesn’t understand. Is this a mystery worth solving, or is she digging into a story better left untapped?
Lately, I have been experiencing more and more novels that are outside of my established comfort zone. These are stories that are not about a leader, fighter, or a spy, but often with a less active protagonist – often without a character that can be clearly defined as the protagonist in any way other than the amount of time they spend on the page. In many of these cases, the conflict is neither clearly defined nor clearly addressed. The challenge, as a critic, is to judge whether this is a new type of story that I need to address with an open mind, or whether this is a normal type of story that is simply lacking crucial elements to make it good.
The White Forest falls into the realm of this discussion because despite having a large and involved supernatural mystery that the entire story focuses on, the protagonist seemingly wants nothing to do with it. Jane is both the protagonist and, in any ways, the mystery, but it is not until she is forced into it that she does much of anything to confront the mystery. The question, then, is where does White Forest lie?
The White Forest is about a girl named Jane – apparently in her late teens – with the ability to sense a “soul” in the objects around her. Her relationship with her best friend is strained at best, and their mutual crush and close friend is missing, which appears to be related both to his fascination with what is alternately dubbed Jane’s “talent” or her “affliction”, depending on with whom you are speaking, and to a cult which he joined possibly as an extension of this obsession. As information about the missing Nathan is revealed, we are treated to flashbacks of Jane’s life as they relate to the story.
It’s the flashbacks that I will start by looking at. Convenient flashbacks, in which the narrator remembers events in their past just as it becomes relevant to the plot, are nothing new. In this case, however, they are more…inconvenient flashbacks. The narrator is aware of her past the whole time, dangling the information in front of the reader until it is too late for the reader to use it to come to any conclusions. Keeping the reader in suspense with this sort of information is standard, and a good way to build up a mystery, but I can’t help but feel that it is a bit backward here. The information seems to be withheld until just after it is revealed in the “now” plot, and then introduced in a manner that would probably have been more interesting if it were the first time we saw it. In short, the flashbacks seem to wait until you no longer care.
A weak story element can be forgiven if the story is good, right? And here is where it’s a little harder. The supernatural mystery is very interesting and engaging. Unfortunately, it’s…only adequately explored. I can’t say that it’s inadequately explored; everything that has to do with the plot is covered. I say this is unfortunate because it’s the type of story that has so much more to tell, and so much of it is left to the imagination. Still, that’s not a negative per se; when the worst thing you have to say about a story is that it didn’t include an overdose of awesome, that’s still pretty high praise.
Then you move on to the rest of the mystery, and the conflicts. There is a clear antagonist, and there is a fair amount of the story dedicated to trying to figure out what role he has in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, this is something that I feel is not adequately explored at all. His powers are similar in some ways to that of Jane’s, but it seems as though the degree depends more on the scene than on anything ongoing. The character is a mystery, but rather than being the type of mystery that draws its strength from remaining mysterious, he is the type that the characters constantly want to know more about and must overpower to win. With so little revealed about him, who he is and how he does what he does, this falls flat.
The closest similarity that I can draw is Randall Flagg as he appears in The Stand. Flagg and Ariston Day share the role of charismatic leader who fails in part due to abuse of his own power. Both have origins that are just secretive enough to show just how unrepentantly evil and unstoppable they truly are. The difference is that Flagg wears what he is on his sleeve. It is always clear that he is always the greater threat, and the heroes win only by being better people than him. It’s not extremely proactive, but it tells a strong story. In the case of Ariston Day, it’s almost impossible to tell where that line lies. It’s hard to tell if he’s frightened of Jane, or if he expects to overpower her. As a result, the tension of each scene often feels like it’s fake or missing. Ariston Day feels less like a true enemy or an agent of the story than he does like a chameleon adapting to what each scene needs without any consistency. Some of the greatest mysteries that the story teases revolve around the things he and his followers do, and none of these are explored in any significant way.
One thing that I haven’t discussed is the main characters. That’s because all of their meaningful interactions have to do with one of the things I have discussed. That’s not to say that they don’t have any form of meaningful friendship, but we don’t see that. We see the scenes with them that revolve around the supernatural and around Ariston Day. They have conflicts, but they don’t truly resolve. They just get swallowed up in the bigger things.
The end result is a story that takes time away from the heavier plot to look at characters that it seems hesitant to fully explore. It raises a lot of interesting ideas and I would love to see a sequel, but preferably one that delves more deeply into its material with a little less repetition. As for this book, I recommend The White Forest to anybody who really wants to see a unique take on fantasy but is very patient and willing to put up with a sometimes muddling plot and one-note characters in between moments of fantasy. If anything in that sentence is a deal-breaker for you, it might be best to sit this one out.