Too Small, Too Quiet: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

Posted 15th February 2024 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Highlights

~don’t trust the apples
~homey magics bring you home again (maybe)
~don’t lie to yourself or you’ll lie to the monsters

I will be honest: I didn’t actually enjoy The Butcher of the Forest. But I still think it’s objectively pretty decent, and I found a fair bit to appreciate in it.

The novella starts out strong, quickly introducing the reader to Veris and the Tyrant she and her people live under. I liked Veris immediately, and the Tyrant turned my stomach; the nightmare he’s put the people he’s conquered through is gotten across very efficiently and effectively. The quick glimpse we get of him when he orders Veris dragged into his presence was more than enough to make me thoroughly despise the man – and absolutely believe he’d carry out his threats if Veris didn’t go into the woods, or failed to come out of them.

The woods – the Elmever – is really where my problems with this novella began. Although Mohamed really nails the sense of urgency powering Veris’ mission – she has from dawn to dusk to get in and out, or she’ll never get out at all – the woods themselves never felt that eerie, frightening, or otherworldly to me. I’m not sure if I was expecting something more dramatic, but birds that occasionally talk and trees that move when you’re not looking? I want a lot more out of my otherworlds; I want the plants and earth and air to be strange and unique, whether creepy or beautiful or both. The fact that you can slip from our world to the world-inside-the-Elmever without noticing is supposed to be one of the things that makes it terrifying, which I don’t object to – but once you’re there, I’d have liked it to be a lot more obvious that this is not our world, you know? Give me bleeding trees and silver bees, squirrels with bat wings hanging upside-down from branches, grass that bruises when you step on it. Streams of blood and honey. Etc.

I had the same issue with the various beings Veris encounters in the woods: they didn’t strike me as alien enough, strange enough. Mohamed disdained to rehash the elven-esque Fae for her Elmever, and she gets points from me for that, but I didn’t really feel anything for or about the creatures she created instead. The house, the guardians, the game she has to play to get the kids back – for me, it was all very meh.

Mohamed did a lot more with Veris wondering if the Tyrant’s children even deserve to be rescued, especially with pointed little details like how the older one, the Tyrant’s heir, just takes Veris’ care and sacrifices for granted, because to her that’s what other people/servants are for.

A lot of the smaller details really did charm me; the way Veris’ aunt does everything in threes to try and give her, Veris, good luck for her quest; the small, humble objects Veris has as talismans to help her. There was this really lovely sense of domestic magic, un-fancy magic, along with a very clear awareness of how outclassed those small magics are by the power of the woods. That gives the whole story a bit of an underdog feel; as with the best fairytales, Veris has to be small and careful and quiet, because if she tries going head-to-head with the monsters, she’d be squashed like a bug. She’s not a hero in the usual sense, because everything depends on her being meek and going as unnoticed as possible, rather than going in big and loud and swinging a sword. I really liked that!

The horror, for me, wasn’t in the monsters and all – though hey, the story did deliver on the cover’s promises; we do get a unicorn! – it was in the moments when the Rules tighten like a noose around Veris’ throat, when the tension is wound to the breaking point and someone missteps, or doesn’t think. There’s a very intense dread in those moments, and a reflexive anger, when you really want to shake whichever character’s fucked up for being so gods’ damned stupid.

And the actual semi-ending, View Spoiler » is appropriately horrifying and wrenching and no no no!!!

But then that ending is undercut by the actual ending of the novella, which retroactively takes a lot of power out of those final moments in the forest. Which lost Butcher of the Forest quite a few stars from me.

I honestly don’t know who I’d recommend this to; it’s not scary enough for horror fans, not fantastical enough for fantasy, and I didn’t find the story itself a very satisfying one. Veris survives by being small and quiet (and clever), but Butcher of the Forest is too small, too quiet, and not clever enough for me.

A swing and (mostly) a miss, imo.

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