Reed's Literary Horror Review of 'Through The Deep Forest' by Russell C. Connor (2021)
A captivating story with a bit too much exposition.
Yeah, this is a pretty good dark fantasy. It's not my favorite read coming out of 2020, but then this is my first for 2021 and had its hooks in pretty deep. Already I'm giving this one my ADHD seal of approval. I found it easier to consume than most of the books I read in 2020 which is an impressive feat, in of itself. Seriously, getting me to throw back 100 pages in a single sitting just never happens. Due to my severe ADHD, it can take me a good week to read a whole book, this one I took down in three days.
I think I know why too. This author has a similar style to Niel Gaimen in his world crafting and storytelling. It's a good depiction of a post-rapture society with lots of interesting layers left behind by three ages since the rapture. There's the pre-rapture society, or what appears to be our society off in the not too distant future. This is presented as the general decay around the world with little remnants of our society popping up among the current society. Then there's the post-rapture society which fills in the current history (spanning just under 300 years), and marks the legends and memories of the current story. For instance, Redfen, who is the protagonist's (Korden) father, was raised in post-rapture society. This would be right around the time the primary antagonists, "the Dark Filament" or "Incarnents" had a chance to wipe out all "lightbringers" or children. Redfen doesn't even remember pre-rapture society. Most of what Korden knows of pre-rapture society is from "The Olders" a collection of geriatric men with one foot in the grave. They would have been middle age around the time of rapture and still remember pre-rapture society well. Then finally you have the current story with Korden, who barely even knows the post-rapture society. He's never even seen a woman. So the story has a very intricate setting that really helped engross me.
Another brilliant point to the plot is how it leaves a lot to the imagination, in a good way. The opening and the way the three layers of time are presented leaves a lot of questions you really want answered. Wanting those questions answered does a lot to string you along with the plot. Like, was magic always a part of this reality or is it new after the rapture? It's not until nearly the end of the opening that you discover magic or "Artcraft" didn't appear until after the rapture. Then of course there is "The Filament" the "Incarnents" Korden's history; it's all presented in a way that makes you want to discover these things. This can be a pretty hard feat for a writer to accomplish. Make the reader ask too many questions and it might buck them from their reader's trance or they might stop reading altogether. For me, the questions came seamlessly with the plot as they strung me along.
There is a lot about the setting and plot that's a bit too simplistic. Occasionally the whole thing comes off as biblical and in some ways a little hokey. The coming of age story of a lone child on a quest is also a bit cliche. There are effectively no new ideas to what a post-rapture society would look like. However, cliche isn't necessarily bad and what the writer does with these facets of the setting is quite good. The Artcraft religion is interesting and smacks of Gnosticism. They refer to things like the "Upper" in a way that reveres it as greater and unknown. "Artcraft" might be something they've mastered and control, but in many ways is still a universal mystery to them. This is also wrapped up brilliantly in the storyline to string the reader along. In fact, all of the cliches used in the story just help with emersion, which is exactly the point of cliche to begin with.
The writing itself is also pretty smart. It's not particularly complex but that's also a good thing. It's not like the use of language is blue, but it is from the perspective of a pretty wet behind the ears teenager and fits perfectly with the perspective. It is a touch melodramatic but not annoyingly so. I'd consider the effort appropriate. There is a slight stumble with perspective hopping. The transitions tend to be a bit awkward. But it was forgivable and didn't buck me from my reader's trance. There are 'new words' made up for the sake of the story and while my investigation into their etymology turned up nothing, they weren't jarring. You quickly get used to words like "Parg" and "Gahmmer," and it's no different than the use of language from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
I do have a bit of a complaint that I have to consider a plot hole. In the beginning of the story, they make a point to explain that Artcraft is being used to hide Korden from the Incarnates. Well, if Artcraft can be used to hide children, or "lightbringers," from the Incarnates... why not just set up Artcraft nurseries for people to have children? The Olders are shirking their earthly duties by just wasting away in solitude. Hell, that's a skill people desperately fucking need. They never really talk about it, leaving one of the largest questions in the plot unanswered.
I get that we really wanted to set Korden up as "the chosen one" but did we need to have it be a virgin birth? It just comes off a hokey and silly. It's already interesting enough that Korden was the son of a 'Crafter' and naturally born into Artcraft. That's a pretty solid story arch for him to discover. Making it biblical bucked me from my reader's trance and caused me to groan. Look, I don't mind telling future writers that the Bible is pretty poorly written. Emulating that in any way is a risk. It didn't even do any favors for The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. But, whatever, it was a small infraction and easily ignored.
I have to say, what was harder to ignore what the constant exposition. I feel like it was unnecessary. There is a whole section devoted to an audio file from post-rapture society about the originator of Artcraft, Oliver Truitt. There is a similar exposition devoted to the Dark Filament. Expositions like these are indeed fascinating but also didn't seem relevant to the story. This book is about 450+ pages but comes off like it could have been done in about 250. I did find myself enjoying it for the most part, but it started to become a bit of a slog.
The pacing separated a lot of the meat and potatoes of the plot, things like Korden's encounter with the cosmic parasite Loathe. This detracted from the overall plot. These things would have meshed far better together if they weren't separated by constant exposition. The story would have moved from one encounter to the next on a steadily escalating difficulty curve for our protagonist. There's just too much space between encounters which is what this book should have focused on. I do feel like I'm being a bit nitpicky, though. 450+ pages might be a bit of a struggle for my ADHD addled mind, but might not be a problem for other reads. And again, to be fair, none of this detracted from the reading. I finished this book far faster than everything I read from 2020, many of which only breached about 250 pages.
Overall, Through the Dark Forest had a way of captivating me. Whether it was the fascinating take of a post-rapture world, or the strange encounters along the way, I could hardly pull myself from the pages. I consider this book a "Must Read" and look forward to trying earlier books in the series.