I tend to avoid reading horror, but I do love a good tale.
Dial, 2018. Hardcover, 304 pages
Middle-grade Horror, Ages 8-13
Nothing to fear but everything here…
Twelve-year-old Kestrel lives in a seemingly endless forest crawling with dangerous beasts. But the most dangerous beasts of all are the Grabbers—nightmarish monsters that stalk one person throughout their life, building their bodies bit by bit until they resemble their victim’s greatest fear.
A talented huntress, Kestrel has been tasked with killing other people’s grabbers, an undertaking made only slightly more bearable by her companion—a hilariously bloodthirsty weasel named Pippit. But as Kestrel hones her skills and searches for a way out of the forest—and away from the judgmental villagers who despise her—her own grabber creeps ever closer.
Dark, twisty, and tinged with humor, this fantasy is not for the faint of heart. —jacket copy
After reading the jacket copy, I thought this book was going to be more quaint than it was. If I’d noticed whether the author was American or not (she’s not), I would’ve been better prepared. Young Readers Writers from other countries tend to be less afraid of frightening their audience.
The “tinge of humor” is less about fart jokes and more for those who appreciate the macabre; which I very much do. The novel also favors those who appreciate gross-out humor: it is definitely gory and gross.
The “dangerous beasts” are deadly serious. The Grabbers build their bodies from found objects, to include carrion. They are relentless and their goal is to kill their victim. When Kestrel kills, she sling-shots, stabs, uses her limbs if she needs to; it’s undeniably physical. Salter is so successful with her descriptions, I could hear bones break and crunch. Pippit is bloodthirsty—and adorable; like when Smeagol tries to reject Gollum in LOTR. If you have a weak stomach a weasel with a human digit in his mouth is the least of your worries.
Where the Woods End offers a lesson in fearmongering—and fear itself.
That Kestrel has to keep her skills sharp is not a fantasy hero’s demonstration that they are capable of handling what is to come; what is to come has already arrived. And Kestrel’s need to survive in order to get out of the forest is crucial—that tension in the novel is as relentless as the grabbers. The forest is a true source of terror, with marvelous little places of dark invention that Kestrel explores in order to divine an exit. The villagers are grotesque and would send anyone packing, but it is Kestrel’s mother who gives the Grabber a run for its money. She is evil. She is no Disney Princess evil step-mother, but something much, much more. She and that dog of hers are vicious. She realizes for the reader and Kestrel the truest definition of a monster.
And then there is Grandmos. Grandmos is Kestrel’s late paternal grandmother, the best huntress in the forest, who trained Kestrel to fight monsters. She, of all the adults in the novel, is the most complicated. She is a source of affection, guilt, and terror for Kestrel. Her tactics are familiar to any adults who’ve read/seen assassin’s backstories. Salter doesn’t try to condone what she’s done, but neither does Kestrel survive without that training. Salter just holds the reader, and Kestrel, on the edge of uncertainty of what to do about Grandmos—which generates fear/anxiety.
What compels you and keeps the gore and violence and creeps from all being too much in Where the Woods End is Kestrel. She isn’t infallible, but she is determined, resourceful, and angry. And Kestrel maintains her youth—she’s on the cusp of change; her relationship with Finn hints at familiar middle-school angst—but she needs to be allowed her hope, resilience, and her ability to look away from difficult things…at least, until that inevitable confrontation with her own Grabber. You hold your breath every time she’s knocked down in hopes she’ll get up and resist. This breath-holding is to prepare you for that end scene when you’re lung capacity may be tested.
The pacing also helps with the nausea and dread in the novel. Salter doesn’t linger too long, keeping the eye and the mind shifting as it collects its own bits and pieces of the forest and its villagers. There isn’t a lot of time to process certain losses (which will frustrate character-driven readers). The race against time joins the anxiety for escape, and they collide with a marvelous revelation. If I laughed when I reached Chapter 17, it was in delight, because my eyes were also wide with horror and revulsion.
The horror was properly difficult as the kinds of violence and abuse Kestrel is surviving is hard to stomach; the fairy tale world helped. As I told a friend, Where the Woods End is one of the darkest middle grades I’ve read in a long while. And I found it entertaining, and thought-provoking. I love Kestrel and Pippit. And Salter has the kind of imagination and craftsmanship I admire in a storyteller.
Recommended for readers of adventure, of horror: think Priestly, Black, Hahn, or Auxier. For readers of fairy tales, particularly those written by authors outside of the American sensibility.
*a note & a SPOILER?
the way Salter writes Kestrel’s father’s ending had to have been difficult, and she does such a fantastic job with it.