Recent reading: Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

So, my laptop finally bit the dust. Took me four days to get a new laptop, which by the way, have I ever mentioned how much I HATE having to learn to use new technology? I do not care how intuitive computer people think a new laptop is: I don’t think it’s intuitive at all. I wish it worked exactly like my nine-year-old laptop that died, only better, instead of having all these new things to figure out.

Also, it won’t let me activate Word, which is quite a problem.

ANYWAY, while I sort out all that, I’ve had essentially no choice but to dip into my immense TBR pile. Picking a book basically at random, I read Darkwood.

Magic is forbidden in Myrsina, along with various other abominations, such as girls doing maths.
This is bad news for Gretel Mudd, who doesn’t perform magic, but does know a lot of maths. When the sinister masked Huntsmen accuse Gretel of witchcraft, she is forced to flee into the neighbouring Darkwood, where witches and monsters dwell.
There, she happens upon Buttercup, a witch who can’t help turning things into gingerbread, Jack Trott, who can make plants grow at will, the White Knight with her band of dwarves and a talking spider called Trevor. These aren’t the terrifying villains she’s been warned about all her life. They’re actually quite nice. Well… most of them.

Darkwood is a funny, playful story, one that deconstructs a bunch of fairy tales and has a tendency to break the fourth wall here and there. It’s a story to enjoy more on an intellectual level than an emotional level, I think — that is, it is a satire of fairy tales, and satire is something to be appreciated intellectually. It’s probably not going to grab a reader emotionally. The Darkwood and environs don’t feel like real places and the characters don’t have the depth of real people either, the way they will, or might, or should, in a different kind of story. That limits emotional engagement, at least for me.

I see Darkwood is being compared to Terry Pratchett in reviews. Well, I see why, I guess, because fantasy satire is a tiny subgenre. But Darkwood lacks the deeper level of insight I think you get with Pratchett (at least with his later books). The social commentary here is much more obvious and delivered without nearly as much actual story wrapped around it. Almost any character from Pratchett’s stories is a lot more complex and rounded than any character from Darkwood. Though Pratchett was writing satire, especially in his later books, the later Sam Vimes stories or many of the others feel much more “real” because of the depth and complexity of the characters.

Now that I re-read the preceding couple of paragraphs, that sounds fairly negative, which I don’t mean to be. I liked Darkwood quite a bit. It’s light and fun and clever and charming. I particularly liked the re-imagining of Snow White. Wow, that is quite a twist on the fairy tale. For playing with fairy tales and fairy tale tropes, this one is top notch. For a Middle Grade reader, even more so, I would bet.

It’s also interesting to consider the subgenre of fantasy satire, because I really had the impression that Pratchett had that subgenre almost entirely to himself. Now I’m thinking there must be more instances out there. I actually have three candidates for the category, now that I think about it:

a) The Diskworld novels.

b) Darkwood

c) Beauty Queens by Libba Bray — which is, however, only on the edge of fantasy, though solidly within the genre of satire. Or the edge of SF. So let’s open up the category to SF as well as fantasy, because why not.

Once you allow SF as well as fantasy, I have one more:

d) Bellwether by Connie Willis

Can anybody else think of SFF stories that fit into an SFF-satire subgenre?

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8 thoughts on “Recent reading: <em>Darkwood</em> by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch”

  1. I would say most of Jim C. Hines’s books fit into that – definitely the Libriomancer books, and probably also the Janitors of the Apocalypse, though I haven’t read that series. Scalzi’s Redshirts, too, for sure. I am sure there are more fairy tale ones as well, particularly in middle grade – they’re just not popping into my mind just yet.

  2. Oh, yes, I should definitely have thought of Redshirts. I haven’t read anything by Hines, but anything called “Janitors of the Apocalypse” definitely has to fit.

  3. Some of Tom Holt, particularly his later ones, like Snow White and the Seven Samurai.

  4. Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons books spring to mind. And, not exactly a story, but maybe also the Tough Guide to Fantasy? But those satirize fantasy tropes more than society at large.

  5. Chicks in Chainmail! I should have remembered that one. There was another one … let me think …

    Oh, right: Mathemagics by Margaret Ball, published back in 1996. I wonder if I still have a copy on my shelves? I remember it as a fun story.

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