Author: Adam McOmber
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy/Speculative Fiction
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardcover: 320 Pages
In this hauntingly original debut novel about a young woman whose peculiar abilities help her infiltrate a mysterious secret society, Adam McOmber uses fantastical twists and dark turns to create a fast-paced, unforgettable story.
Young Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret—an unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects—and this talent isolates her from the outside world. Her greatest joy is wandering the wild heath with her neighbors, Madeline and Nathan. But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. Day encourages his followers to explore dream manipulation with the goal of discovering a strange hidden world, a place he calls the Empyrean.
A year later, Nathan has vanished, and the famed Inspector Vidocq arrives in London to untangle the events that led up to Nathan’s disappearance. As a sinister truth emerges, Jane realizes she must discover the origins of her talent, and use it to find Nathan herself, before it’s too late.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: Superficially, I was drawn to the admittedly gorgeous reflective cover and title. Then, I was drawn in by the premise – a Victorian era novel with a gothic fantasy sensibility, involving secret cults and hidden powers? Yes please.
Jane Silverlake has always been a strange and aloof child, growing up in the isolated, deteriorating Hampstead Heath outside of London. Following her mother’s strange death, Jane has discovered she possesses a unique ability – she can perceive the souls of manmade objects, sensing their auras and resonant sounds and colors. Even more, Jane can transfer this experience through physical contact, an ability that she both relishes (especially to exact revenge on a particularly disapproving servant) and fears. Because of her uncanny ability, and because of her father’s withdrawal from Society following the death of his wife, Jane has grown up an isolated girl, floating from room to room of Hampstead Heath like a wraith.
But, one day, Jane meets Madeline Lee, whose family leaves London after a scandal involving her father’s risque art. A vivacious, beautiful young lady, Maddy is everything that Jane is not, and soon Jane finds herself beneath Maddy’s wing. With Maddy comes young Lord Nathan Ashe – beautiful, charismatic, and like so many of Society’s elite, fascinated with the realm of the spirit. For years, Jane Silverlake, Madeline Lee and Nathan Ashe are inseparable, but their relationship begins to change as Jane finally divulges her unique talent, and Nathan grows increasingly obsessed with Jane while Maddy grows increasingly uncomfortable, even jealous, of Nathan’s attentions.
This careful balance of friendship comes crashing down when Nathan leaves to fight in the Crimean War, and returns at the War’s end a changed man. Soon, Nathan falls under the spell of Ariston Day – leader of one of London’s most dangerous and feared cults, fixated on the discovery of a higher realm known as the Empyrean. Nathan has long believed that Jane is the doorway to the Empyrean, and the key to crossing the realm of the physical to that of the spiritual – a belief he divulges to Ariston Day. When Nathan suddenly, inexplicably disappears, it is up to Jane to wield the full brunt of her power to bring Nathan back and repair the fragile relationship between her friends, before Day and his followers can unleash their own sinister plan to unleash the Empyrean and its terrifying implications on London.
The debut novel from accomplished and prolific short fiction writer Adam McOmber, The White Forest is a dark Victorian fantasy novel that has been proudly compared (by the publisher) to Erin Morgenstern’s wildly successful The Night Circus and praised by the likes of Keith Donoghue (The Stolen Child) and Daniel Wallace (Big Fish). While The White Forest has basically nothing in common with The Night Circus, the praise from Donoghue and Wallace is well-earned – McOmber’s imagery and the mythology behind the titular White Forest are beautifully drawn, and this is an unexpected novel full of dark twists and turns. And, for the most part, I enjoyed The White Forest thanks to this imaginative scope.
The most impressive thing about The White Forest, to me, lies with the unexpected quality of the story’s telling. Though the novel begins in a fashion reminiscent of many a Victorian yarn and focuses on the precipitous friendship between Jane, Maddy and Nathan, it gradually becomes something other, shifting to the darker recesses of fantasy and horror and reveling in the surreal. I loved the idea of Jane’s power (and that of her mother before her, or the others before them), especially in how unknown its implications are, even to Jane. When she first discovers her ability, she is caught up in its promise and power until it threatens to overtake her completely. I appreciate the struggle within as Jane becomes aware of the White Forest at the edge of her power and all it represents. The truth of Jane’s nature unfolds slowly over the course of the book, tantalizingly so, and span Jane’s own experiences to Nathan’s private research, lending an air of mystery to an otherwise very slow moving text, which I also appreciated. When all is revealed in the novel’s surreal, frenzied finale the payoff is almost worth the wait.
From a character perspective, I truly appreciate how deeply flawed Jane, Maddy and Nathan are, and the tension that defines the relationships between them. Madeline loves the beautiful Nathan, and as a beautiful cultured young lady (albeit one from a fallen family), her jealousy of Jane as the object of Nathan’s obsession is palpable, her barbs glossed over by Jane but noted by the reader. Easily, Maddy’s conflicted character is my favorite of the bunch – but Madeline is not our narrator. Jane, on the other hand, is at first glance unassuming, quiet, and secretive – insecure with her standing with her friends, but with a steely strength underyling her character. I appreciated, too, Jane’s less likable qualities – her cruelty towards her servants, are cringeworthy but feel genuine to Jane’s character. In contrast to these female leads, Nathan is a foil romanticized by both Jane and Maddy. Nathan’s obsession consumes him, and his disregard for others has ruinous consequences. Suffice it to say, not a one of these characters is truly likable, but they all resonate and feel very real.
These praises said, there are some issues particular to period and authenticity that niggle and prevented me from truly becoming immersed in this novel. Regarding time period, we are never given a firm date in the text (the opening lines of the book site “18–” as the year), but we do know that this is during/immediately after the Crimean War (as Nathan fought in the war), therefore must be in the range of 1853-1856, or shortly thereafter. However, the Crystal Palace (home of the Great Exhibition) plays a prominent role in this novel, and Jane narrates that the palace had just opened its doors in May and that it is situated in Hyde Park. By the power of the google (and the wikipedia), this is impossible – the Great Exhibition took place in 1851 (and given that the palace opened its doors in May, this must mean the start of the Great Exhibition). Additionally, the Crystal Palace was moved after the Great Exhibition from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill in 1854. So then, how, I ask, are Jane and Maddy going to the opening of Palace to the public (1851), POST-Crimean War (1856), in Hyde Park?[1. There is an Author’s Note following the text of my ARC in which McOmber states he decided to keep the Palace in Hyde Park for this book even though it was moved to Sydenham Hill – however, there are still problems with the Crimean War timeline.] In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a huge deal – but it bothers me, especially considering that this is a historical fiction novel, and that it takes a few minutes of basic internet research to get a timeline straight.
Beyond this admitted pet peeve, there are other things that bothered regarding time period and authenticity. Certain modern phrases and idioms are strewn throughout The White Forest, breaking the spell of the Victorian era setting and jarring the reading experience. For example, during Jane and Maddy’s trip to the Crystal Palace:
Maddy laughed lightly. “That would be Jane’s fault, Miss Ulster. She’s pursued by vengeful spirits. The feeling will go away once you’ve left her presence, much like indigestion dissipates when the offending meal has been passed.”
Judith enjoyed this bit of toilet humor made at my expense, enough to forget her temporarily haunted bow. “Call me Judith, and Jane doesn’t look anything like a piece of meat gone bad.”
Now, while the flushing toilet was invented at this time and the first public bathrooms installed at the Great Exhibition, the very modern sensibility of “toilet humor” – used by a girl that has grown up completely isolated outside of London, no less – is not a phrase one would use in 1851/6. In fact, toilet would have an entirely DIFFERNT meaning during this time period, corresponding with one’s grooming/dressing habit or ablutions (not a water closet, or lavatory).
Then there are other little things like:
We found Nathan there pacing. “I’ll never know what the two of you get up to in that bedroom,” he said.
“Jane and I had to make hasty love,” Maddy replied. “We can’t seem to get enough of one another.”
Nathan grinned at this. “Yes, well, I hope you’ve satisfied yourselves. It’s a long trip to Piccadilly.”
The phrase “making love” in reference to sex (as it is here) is also a very modern notion from the 1950s onward. “Making love” in the mid 19th century would have a completely different connotation at this point in time – as in, wooing, not intercourse.
These details are simple details, but it’s incredibly distracting and kept pulling me out of the story. If you are anything like me, you might have similar issues.
Ultimately, I ended up enjoying The White Forest and can happily recommend it, but with some noted reservations.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Hampstead Heath, 18—
When Nathan Ashe disappeared from the ruined streets of Southwark, I couldn’t help but think the horror was, at least in part, my own design. I’d infected him, after all, filled him up with my so-called disease. The rank shadows and gaslight in the human warrens beyond Blackfriars Bridge did the rest. Madeline Lee, my dearest friend, would come to hate me for what I’d done. She said I ruined Nathan because of love, and that infecting him was my way of laying claim to his attentions. I couldn’t make her understand how he begged for it, begged me to touch him until he was changed. It wasn’t me—Jane Silverlake—he desired. He wanted the Empyrean, that improbable paradise, and I was its doorway. By the end, Nathan was no longer the boy we had adventures with on the Heath nor the young man who went to war in the Crimea. He grew to be half a human being and half some ancient and unnamed thing, and despite my warnings, we were all pulled into his hell, as if by the swift currents of an unseen river.
I can see the three of us there in the Roman ruin of my father’s garden. It was a warm day in spring, two months before Nathan’s disappearance, and looking back, I realize he was already beginning to lose himself. The ruin was a folly, meant to resemble the baths of Emperor Diocletian, and the broken gods of Rome stared down at us from their high pedestals—regal Apollo with hands and forearms missing and Venus with her face nearly worn away. Maddy and I sat together on the cool terrazzo near the sunken bath, our skirts pooled around us. We were the same age, not yet two and twenty. Maddy tended to be bold where I was circumspect, yet we shared a common affection for Nathan Ashe. He was a year older—aristocratic and lissome— and most importantly, he treated us as something more than girls. The three of us had been friends for years—taking restorative walks on the Heath and making our discussions in the garden. When Nathan began to change, everything was thrown off balance. We lost our careful orbits and began to fall.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to check out our interview with Adam McOmber as he discusses his writing influences and recommended books for the gothic fantasy fan. (Plus, there’s a chance to win The White Forest.)
Rating: 6 – Good
Reading Next: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)