This is a YA novel, and I wish I had read it as a young adult because I’m sure I would have absolutely adored it. But even as an adult, I very much enjoyed its unsettling atmosphere and the wonderful evocation of a bleak English midwinter, the backdrop for an epic struggle between Light and Dark.
I’ve wanted to read the book ever since I first heard of it from the author Robert Macfarlane, who cites it as a formative piece of literature for his own writing about “the eeriness of the English countryside”. And since the story takes place between midwinter and Twelfth Night, the Christmas break seemed like the perfect time to read it.
There’s lovely writing here, and finely drawn characters (including an appealing protagonist, the 11-year-old Will Stanton), and an archetypal battle between good and evil. And then there’s the English countryside as a character in itself, with its “old ways” and deep woods and ancient burial grounds and countless myths. The climax of the book, which features an appearance by the legendary figure Herne the Hunter, is a dark, breathtaking delight. I stayed up late to read the book to the end, which is something I rarely do these days—it made me feel like a kid all over again.