Suspiciously Specific #5: Magical Forests
Suspiciously Specific is a new bi-weekly series of assorted book recommendations, inspired by the subreddit by the same name, as well as a short video-series by BooksandLala on Youtube. In short-form, I’ll recommend ten books across genres, that happen to have something very specific in common. Whether it be a very niche trope, a cover-trend, or a theme that is só specific you’re surprised there’s more than one book that includes it. Requests for a list are always welcome if you happen to have a specific trope you love, but think is too niche to find recommendations for.
This month’s Suspiciously Specific book-groupings are all about setting. Starting off with a setting that I’ve inadvertently spent a lot of time within since the start of this year: Magical Forests. In my free time, I love to go for long walks in the forest nearby, and an audiobook with a forest setting is a perfect companion to that. I’ve also been playing the phenomenal game Kena: Bridge of Spirits, which also takes place in a magical forest setting. If you too have caught the forest-exploration-bug this spring, take your pick from the following 10 fantasy reads to accompany you on your next adventure.
Genre: Young-adult fantasy
One-line synopsis: when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, Alice and her mum travel to the woods-surrounded home that inspired these fairytales. After a series of strange encounters leads to the disappearance of her mother, Alice discovers that much more of these stories might be inspired by true events.
The Setting: an abandoned estate surrounded by woods, filled with creatures straight from the fairytales of Grimm and Alice’s Grandma alike.
My thoughts: Upon its release in 2018, The Hazelwood formed the start of a trend of fairytale-forests in YA, inspired by Grimm’s fairytales. Although it’s not my favourite adaptation of it, I think it’s one of the most influential ones in its age-category, so it deserves to kick off this list.
Genre: Young-adult paranormal/urban fantasy
One-line synopsis: the story of the adventures, unlikely friendship and budding romance between the daughter of a locally famous clairvoyant, and a group of privileged boys from a local private school.
The Setting: An ancient, sentient forest at the crossroads of multiple ley lines, where the laws of physics and reality are flexible, meaning the thoughts and feelings of anyone who enters can change physical aspects of the forest.
My thoughts: speaking of “classics” within the YA-genre; there’s no way to do a list on magical forests without mentioning Cabeswater. The mere mention of its name brings back so much nostalgia towards this series to me. If I could personally spend an afternoon in any of these forests, Cabeswater would be my first choice without a doubt.
Genre: Young adult contemporary with a hint of magical realism One-line synopsis: the 17-year old daughter of a struggling artist begins secretly forging paintings, plunging her into a dark and dangerous imaginary world of her mother’s creation. The Setting: a colourful but dangerous jungle, filled with carnivorous plants and other botanical and natural dangers.
My thoughts: this was the perfect blend of contemporary with relevant, well-explored real-life themes, such as class, wealth-inequality, mental-health and trauma, with a hint of fantasy to add an extra element of uniqueness. I’ve never read anything quite like it and hope it finds its audience, as it’s the newest release on this list.
Genre: Adult High Fantasy
One-line synopsis: Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between humans and those they thought were gods changes forever. The Setting: a large part of the story is set in the Crescent Forest, located within Sullivans overarching world of Riyria; an ancient primeval forest populated by mystical creatures, talking trees, and vicious spirits.
My thoughts: the story of The Legends of the Empire series has a lot of elements that you’ll recognize if you’re a regular fantasy-reader, and therefore isn’t the most unique of reads. However, the setting and some of its characters (especially Suri and Minna) really make this book memorable and enjoyable to me. I also think it would make a good entry into Epic Fantasy, if you’re just dipping your toes in the genre.
Genre: Cozy Fantasy
One-line synopsis: A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love. The Setting: three words: cottage core forest…
My thoughts: This book shouldn’t have worked for me, yet it somehow did. I generally do not like fae-stories, and cozy fantasy is about a 50/50 hit-or-miss. Yet cozy fantasy with cottage-core vibes, a scholarly main character, and a take on fae that isn’t all about dark-broody-handsome-guys, apparently was just what I needed. If you’re on the fence about Fae-fantasy: trust me, this one is more than just another brick in the wall.
Genre: Contemporary novel in verse
One-line synopsis: two teens deal with with grief, clinical depression, identity and more, in a magical and/or metaphorical journey through the dark forest at the end of their lane, that threatens to invade their homes. The Setting: a metaphorical forest, haunted by suffocating roots and monsters that reflect their personal trauma’s. The only way out of the dark, is straight through.
My thoughts: I’ve loved Amber McBrides poetry since I read Me (Moth) in 2021. The way she interweaves fairytale-elements, lush and poignant language and difficult themes of mental health and more into something so readable, yet emotionally impactful is incredible.
Genre: Magical Realism
One-line synopsis: A twelve-year-old boy mourning the death of his mother has only his fairytale books for company. With his family falling apart around him, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld, propelling him into a fictional world that is a strange reflection of his own. The Setting: woods filled with classic and well-known figures from European folk- and fairytales, including a wolf in human clothing, a huntsman, seven dwarves and more.
My thoughts: The Never Ending Story meets A Monster Calls in this dark fairytale for adults and teens alike. Many familiar tropes get an emotional spin, making this a book that I won’t soon forget.
Genre: Literary fiction/fantasy
One-line synopsis: a literary fairytale about witchcraft, motherhood, feminism vs misogyny, the beauty of nature and so much more. Important note: as with many of Logans books, you can expect phenomenal language, characters, vibes and themes, more so than a particularly story-driven plot. The Setting: picture thick European woods in winter. At first; seemingly inhospitable, dark and frightening. Yet once you learn where to look, where to find shelter, healing herbs, and fruits of the forest, you’ll find this canopy of trees will nurture you like a mother.
My thoughts: As the self-appointed Chair of the Unofficial-Kirsty-Logan-Fanclub, it’s no surprise to anyone that I loved this to pieces. I’m generally becoming a bit burned out on the subgenre of feminist-witch-fiction, but Kirsty Logan made it completely her own. This woman is a Word-Witch, and has yet to fail to work her magic on me.
One-line synopsis: the heart wrenching story of a brother and sister who grow up joined at the hip, spending their days playing in the small stretch of woods behind their house, imagining it to be the magical woodlands of Gumlea. When real-life tragedy strikes and one of them disappears, the other, entangled in a web of grief, becomes convinced their sibling has traveled to Gumlea for one final time. The Setting: although none of the story actually takes place in a fantasy-land, Gumlea and the fiction the siblings create between them plays a central role in the story. It’s a place filled with knights and princesses, and high-stakes adventures where the two of them can always be the heroes that come out on top. The contrast between the real world and the fiction of Gumlea is what help creates the gutpunch that this novel delivers.
My thoughts: clearly a bit of an outlier on the list, as it’s not a fantasy, but it is one of my all-time favourite novels that I don’t get to talk about nearly enough. It’s a phenomenal exploration of paracosm and the ways kids use imagination to cope with trauma through a compassionate and heartfelt lens. Although I understand the subject matter isn’t for everyone, I highly recommend this book if it’s something you’re comfortable to explore.
Genre: middle-grade adventure One-line synopsis: On the night Ronia was born, a thunderstorm raged over the mountain, but in Matt's castle and among his band of robbers there was only joy -- for Matt now had a spirited little black-haired daughter. Soon Ronia learns to dance and yell with the robbers, but it is alone in the forest that she feels truly at home. The Setting: the Robbers castle and its stunning surrounding woods, inspired by the Swedish wilds and the folklore born within it. My thoughts: to end this list on an upbeat note, I had to mention one of my all-time favourite childhood books: Ronia the Robbers Daughter. This book, as well as the excellent movie adaptation fueled much of my own outdoors explorations as a kid and had me wishing I could run away and actually make a home for myself within the forests.
To finish up this post, a quick shout out to 5 more memorable forests that didn’t quite make this list, but still deserve your attention. The titular woods from The Waking Forest by Alyssa Wees. This one didn’t make the list because I personally disliked the book, yet it’s still quite popular with fans of the likes of The Hazelwood. The California redwoods featured in The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta, home to the beautiful friendships, self-exploration and dabbling into magic of six queer modern witches.
The titular Wyldlands from Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames; a treacherous wilderness that only the bravest and most skilled of bands can travel. Beware Owlbears along the way.
The swampy jungle that houses the titular prison of Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Admittedly, it’s more of a swamp rather than a forest, but it’s still one of my favourite sci-fi-fantasy settings of all time for how vividly I could picture it.
And finally, the alien woods from The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin. A bit of a strange one, but a classic for a reason...
If woods aren’t quite your thing (thank you for making it until here, I’m impressed), fret not; the next edition of Suspiciously Specific is a big one and will also be all about book-settings, of all varieties. Check back in at the end of the month for more.