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The Butcher of the Forest

The Butcher Of The Forest, by Premee Mohamed.

Titan Books, hb, £11.95

Reviewed by Steven Poore

Better known, in this book cellar at least, for her Indiana Jones/Lex Luthor/Cthulhu warp-speed romp across a modern world threatened by mistakenly-summoned Ancient Ones, Beneath The Rising (Solaris, 2020), Premee Mohamed is evidently creeping bugge-like through all layers of speculative fiction – and now into the dangerous realm of the Fae with this new novella.

Touted as an eerie, twisted fable set in a world of uncanny creatures, deadly beauty, and unthinkable violence, The Butcher Of The Forest sets its hero, a woman named Veris Thorn, what seems an impossible task: to find the wayward children of the country’s overbearing Tyrant and rescue them from deep in the Northern Woods, from where nobody has ever returned. Nobody, that is, but for Veris herself. Should she refuse, or should she fail, her remaining family will be destroyed.

Because that is what the Tyrant does: occupy, destroy, plunder, and leave behind a population exhausted and shattered. Veris has been into the woods before, and she knows how unlikely it is that she will live to tell the tale this time, but like the rest of her people, she is so broken that she dares not say no.

These woods are as primal as, if not more dangerous than, Ryhope Wood. They abide by arcane rules and permissions, and Veris encounters poisoned fruit, talking birds, something that might (not) be a fox in the right/wrong light, and a house far larger on the inside as she hunts for the missing children. In keeping with Mohamed’s previous work, the beasts are Annihilation-level horrific. Every step forward is tentatively taken in case it turns out to be a mistake. Nine times out of ten, it is – the first rule of the Elmever, it seems, is DON’T.

Mohamed winds up the tension and the weight on Veris’s shoulders quite relentlessly. There are no fights, as such, except that every moment of Veris’s day is a fight. The   denouement and the twist, when they come to weigh her down even further, are no less painful for not being entirely unexpected: we knew, coming into this, that prices would need to be paid.

Mohamed’s writing is swift and descriptive, sentences tumbling out to reflect Veris’s desperation as well as the fractured realm of the Elmever. This is a tale easily devoured in one intense sitting, and you’ll wish it had gone on longer and then feel guilty for wishing that upon Veris and the two children.

Excellent stuff and well worth anybody’s time.

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