Hey, fellow bibliophiles!
I hope this post finds you well and in the midst of a captivating read — actually, no, maybe you need me to tell you to stop scrolling and get back to your book?
Also, it’s my birthday today! Happy birthday to me! If you want to get me a gift and not pay a dime, sharing this blog would be oh-so-lovely.
I’ve recently finished “After the Forest” by Jessica Woods, a reimagining of the classic Hansel and Gretel tale that weaves in post-war German history and a touch of magic. I must admit, I had high expectations for this one — I mean, who wouldn’t be intrigued by the idea of a grown-up Hansel and Gretel grappling with their past trauma?
After the Forest is a dark and enchanting fantasy debut from Kell Woods that explores the repercussions of a childhood filled with magic and a young woman contending with the truth of “happily ever after.”
Ginger. Honey. Cinnamon. Flour.
Twenty years after the witch in the gingerbread house, Greta and Hans are struggling to get by. Their mother and stepmother are long dead, Hans is deeply in debt from gambling, and the countryside lies in ruin, its people starving in the aftermath of a brutal war.
Greta has a secret, the witch’s grimoire, secreted away and whispering in Greta’s ear for the past two decades, and the recipe inside that makes the best gingerbread you’ve ever tasted. As long as she can bake, Greta can keep her small family afloat.
But in a village full of superstition, Greta and her mysteriously addictive gingerbread, not to mention the rumors about her childhood misadventures, is a source of gossip and suspicion.
And now, dark magic is returning to the woods and Greta’s magic—magic she is still trying to understand—may be the only thing that can save her. If it doesn’t kill her first.
I was really excited about this one – a grown-up Hansel and Gretel trying to make it after that whole witch debacle? Sign me up! But I think this one just wasn’t for me.
The book places us in the shoes of Gretel or “Greta” (Margareta) and Hansel, Hans, the siblings who once escaped the clutches of a witch, now two decades older and grappling with the traumas of their past. Woods paints a vivid picture of their struggle, setting the story in post-war Germany, riddled with superstition and suspicion. The addition of a few Scottish characters brings a fresh cultural mix into the narrative. Felt super authentic and I was here for it.
I loved the first third of the book and was completely engrossed. Greta wrestling with the expectations placed on women back in the day was a powerful read. Her use of a stolen spellbook to bake mysteriously addictive gingerbread is a delightful blend of light magic and survival instinct, a creative twist to their childhood encounter with the witch.
However, as the narrative unfolds, the story appears to lose its way. It just felt like there were too many stories shoehorned into one—in shapeshifters, eternal curses, and characters too big for the world (Liesbeth). They didn’t seem to fit together. Mattias was a great love interest and his own story was excellent, but it felt like it had been forced into the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale when it should have been the entire focus of the story.
Further, the second half of the book felt increasingly tedious to navigate through. The unveiling of villains’ motivations stretched the bounds of plausibility, undermining the earlier grounded world-building. The addition of an evil dwarf character felt a little insensitive and unnecessary.
It felt like it was going to say a lot about women’s agency, how widows and single women, or simply too independent, are viewed with suspicion and called a witch, or are forced to degrade themselves at the hands of the powerful. But it didn’t feel like much was really said in the end, and when it came down to it, just kind of missed the mark.
So, in the end, After the Forest started off strong, but lost me in the second half. I loved Greta, and the historical detail was top-notch, but the rest of it just didn’t do it for me. If you’re down for a fairy tale with a historical twist, give it a go – just be prepared for a few bumps along the way.
See you all next week,