When her siblings start to go missing, a girl must confront the dark thing that lives in the forest—and the growing darkness in herself…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from A Dark and Starless Forest, the debut YA fantasy from author Sarah Hollowell—available September 14th from Clairion Books.
Derry and her eight siblings live in an isolated house by the lake, separated from the rest of the world by an eerie and menacing forest. Frank, the man who raised them after their families abandoned them, says it’s for their own good. After all, the world isn’t safe for people with magic. And Derry feels safe—most of the time.
Until the night her eldest sister disappears. Jane and Derry swore to each other that they’d never go into the forest, not after their last trip ended in blood, but Derry is sure she saw Jane walk into the trees. When another sibling goes missing and Frank’s true colors start to show, feeling safe is no longer an option. Derry will risk anything to protect the family she has left. Even if that means returning to the forest that has started calling to Derry in her missing siblings’ voices.
As Derry spends more time amidst the trees, her magic grows more powerful… and so does the darkness inside her, the viciousness she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. But saving her siblings from the forest and from Frank might mean embracing the darkness. And that just might be the most dangerous thing of all.
The snowdrops in the gardening book are mocking me. Their white blossoms hang from vibrant green stems, all huddled together in a bunch. Laughing at me, probably, as I try to defy nature.
I press my hand into the patch of dirt cleared just for this test. It’s been baked by the high summer sun until it nearly radiates heat, and now I have to grow a winter flower out of it. The flower’s primary season is January to April—May at a stretch—and we are quite solidly in August. The snowdrops are all asleep and they don’t want to come back just because some sixteen-year-old alchemist asks them nicely.
I wish Frank had given me any other task except for growing a real flower. Real is always so much harder. When I ask the earth to bring plants from my imagination into being, it responds eagerly, like we’re playing a game. But with anything real, it hesitates. It seems to purse its lips and look me up and down, and find me wanting.
Wanting for what, I don’t know. I’ve read absolutely every book on gardening and botany that we have in the lake house. I know all about snowdrops. Galanthus nivalis. Incredibly common. Native to more places than I can name, but one of them is Indiana. I’ve seen them bloom here every winter. I know that this earth knows these flowers and can grow them.
I sneak glances away from the book, toward my audience. “Audience” is a generous term, since that would imply more than a few of them were paying attention. Only Jane and London are actually watching, with London in Jane’s lap. Winnie’s lying on her stomach, too busy tearing blades of grass into pieces to look up. Brooke and Irene are having an animated conversation in sign language that I think is about a movie we watched recently, but it’s hard to tell from this angle. Violet’s reading while Olivia braids their hair, and Olivia’s hair is being braided by Elle.
Seven sisters and Violet, who came out as nonbinary after being with us for a year. Frank couldn’t exactly kick them out by that point. Wouldn’t have, I think. Irene is trans and that’s never been a problem, so Violet shouldn’t be either. Any gender welcome except male, because Frank thinks male alchemists are prone to either being less powerful or burning out faster or both.
Frank’s my primary source of information on alchemists, so I can’t really say if he’s right or not. Considering how much he’s helped us all grow and learn to control our magic, I’d say he knows his stuff, but…
I shift my eyes toward him. Frank’s a tall white man somewhere in his thirties or forties—he’s never said, and I’m not good at ages. His lean frame towers over all of us, and when we’re outside he wears reflective sunglasses that hide his green eyes. I can still always tell when he’s looking at me. His gaze has a weight to it. It settles onto my shoulders first, then worms its way up my spinal column into my brain until the world is both too fuzzy and too sharp.
It’s not a good feeling.
Frank’s pacing behind my siblings, holding the iPad he uses to take notes during tests. Chatter descends into whispers or dies altogether whenever he draws close, then rises as his pacing takes him away.
He nods at me to begin.
I snap back to the book. I stare at the snowdrops so hard my vision begins to blur.
Please, I think into the earth. I know this is all wrong, I know it’s too hot—it is for me, too. But could a few of you come out anyway?
“Remember to breathe,” Frank says. “Squares. Straight lines.”
Right. Breathe in, that’s the base of the square. Breathe out, and draw the left side. Steady, now. Build a box for the spell to grow in. Breathe in, form the top. Feel the magic and harness it. Breathe out, close the square.
It’s not working. The earth is unimpressed. What does it care for straight lines?
I risk another glance at Frank. He’s frowning. Anxiety bursts into my veins like a thousand microscopic bombs. I don’t want to disappoint him. Another peek toward Jane, seeking a last boost of strength, because at every test she’s there, she’s watching, and she’s smiling like she knows I can do anything.
But Jane’s not looking at me. London still is, with those serious eight-year-old eyes, but not Jane. She’s looking over her shoulder, across the lake and toward the forest. When she turns back around, her expression is worried. My heart stutters. Is she thinking about what happened in there? Is she reconsidering our deal? Is she—
“We don’t have all day, Derry,” Frank says.
The magic square in my mind shatters. What comes out of the ground isn’t the blanket of snowdrops I’d imagined, the kind of dense thicket that looks like actual snow from afar. It’s no more than a dozen scattered flowers. They stand too rigid, as if they’re too proud to droop in front of us, but the blossoms are bell-shaped and white, and it’s close enough.
It has to be close enough.
The magic I sent into the earth flows back into me. Tiny gray flowers bloom on my shoulder and descend across the thick fat of my upper arm. It doesn’t hurt. It’s a gentle push under my skin, a tug from somewhere above it, and then I’m growing my own flowers. I barely register them in the moment. I brush them off, leaving no trace, and wait for judgement.
“Good,” Frank says. He smiles, but it’s not a real, true smile. It’s a consolation prize. I did enough, but I wasn’t impressive. I think he knows I didn’t try hard enough to exert control with the square breathing.
I collapse on the ground between Jane and Winnie. London reaches outside the boundary of Jane’s lap to pat my head.
“You were great,” Jane says.
“You were fine,” Winnie says, pulling several more strands of grass apart at the middle. Her face is almost entirely shrouded by her long blond hair. “Better than me.”
I can’t do much to comfort her there, because she’s right. Her test didn’t go well. They rarely do. Out of all of us, Winnie’s magic is the least reliable. When it decides to show up, it’s usually fine, but it rarely decides to show up when she wants it to. She’s supposed to be telekinetic, but it primarily manifests as a breeze that hangs out near her. We call it her little pet poltergeist, because it mostly just messes around. It’s the poltergeist that’s forming her ripped-up pieces of grass into a tiny whirlwind.
“You were also great,” Jane tells Winnie. “You improved from last week, and that’s what matters.”
Anyone else would have earned a glare from Winnie for that, and probably prank-based retaliation later. One time Winnie used all of the plastic wrap in the house to individually wrap every piece of my clothing, and that was just because of some stupid fight I don’t even remember the genesis of now.
Genesis. Good word.
Winnie got time out for like an hour for wasting so much plastic wrap, which had to be hell. She dutifully apologized once she got out, but the way her poltergeist whipped around my face told me she wasn’t sorry at all.
But you don’t do that kind of thing to Jane. Instead, Winnie smiles at her, and the shreds of grass settle back onto the ground.
Jane looks over her shoulder again. It’s so quick, I doubt anyone else notices. Before I can say anything, the next test begins. Jane turns her attention full force to Violet.
I look across the lake, toward the forest.
We weren’t supposed to be in the forest that day. We’re never supposed to be in the forest. If Frank knew even that much—if he knew what I did—
I lie down on my stomach, mimicking Winnie, and press my face into my hands. They’re sweaty and my face is sweaty and it’s too goddamn hot, Frank had to know I’d never be able to grow snowdrops in this heat. Maybe he already knows what I did. Maybe that’s why he set me up to fail.
Winnie nudges me. I raise my head to glare at her.
“Stop,” she hisses. “Whatever you’re freaking out about, stop. You’re practically vibrating, and it’s distracting.”
“Distracting from what? All the rapt attention you’re giving Violet?” She glares, and I sneer, and Jane clears her throat. Moments later, Frank’s shadow falls over us.
Neither of us look up at him. He doesn’t say anything. Winnie and I just stare straight ahead at Violet as they glamour their own hair from brown to purple to silver.
Eventually, Frank walks away. Winnie sticks her tongue out at me. I return the favor, feeling like I’m ten years old but also feeling entirely justified.
Pretty sure we only have like half a roll of plastic wrap right now anyway.
Tests and what comes after them take up all of Monday morning, every week. The testing part is over and we’re painfully close to lunch, but first we must deal with the flowers.
Nine glass flowers sit on a shelf in the living room. There’s one for each of us. They glow a rainbow of colors—some more brilliantly than others. They’re meant to represent our magic. The tests are important to see what we can do, but it’s the flowers that tell us and Frank if our magic has truly grown.
My siblings and I line up across from our flowers while Frank stands by the shelf with that ever-present iPad.
Jane steps forward first. She takes a glass camellia from the shelf. Its pink glow is steady and strong. Dependable. She holds it with two hands, and waits.
Jane is the oldest of us at nineteen. She’s a slender Black girl who spent the first ten years of her life on a farm in Ohio. She wound up here, like the rest of us did after her, when her magic became too much for her parents to handle.
The camellia flashes and settles back to the same pink glow. The flash is a good sign. It means that the flower sensed some kind of growth. From the size of the flash, it’s only a little growth, but that’s normal. How much can you really grow in a week? The size doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we continue advancing.
Frank lightly taps notes into his iPad. He beckons Winnie to come forward next. She’s anxiously braided a small portion of her hair while waiting her turn. The braid falls apart when she drops her hands and steps up.
Winnie arrived at the lake house a few months after Jane. I don’t think she changed much from that point to when I met her two years later, or even to now. She’s still a chubby white girl with pigtails, a temper, and a Minnesota accent.
Her glass amaryllis glows with faint swirls of red and white that refract through the glass as if a piece of her little pet poltergeist is trapped inside. She glares at it as she picks it up, as if she can threaten it into flashing.
If anyone could, it would be Winnie. That’s probably not why her amaryllis gives the gentlest of flashes, but her triumphant smile says that she thinks it is.
We continue on down the line. The third-oldest, Brooke, is a Deaf Mexican-American. Her flower is a cluster of blue forget-me-nots that outshine anything else on the shelf. This morning during her test she signed ‘I cast Sacred Flame,’ and scorched a circle out of the grass.
Surprising no one, her flower’s flash is bright enough to make us shield our eyes.
Elle and Irene are twins, but not identical twins—they’re both tall white girls, but there are a million little differences, like Elle’s honey-blond hair vs Irene’s dark blond, or Elle’s face, with its thick smattering of freckles, versus Irene’s face, which tends to go red more than it freckles or even tans.
Elle’s flower is a vivid pink snapdragon, and Irene’s a coral-red hibiscus with deceptively delicate petals. Both their flowers flash when held, but while Elle beams at Frank and waits for his approving smile before stepping back in line, Irene doesn’t even glance his way.
My turn. The poppy near the middle is mine. Seven years ago, I sat on the floor of this living room with Jane. We held the glass poppy together until it filled up with red light.
She’s the one who did all the magic to make the flowers ready to sense our magic. It’s something to do with her affinity for inanimate objects. Usually she can only physically manipulate them, but Frank said the glass is special. It allows Jane’s magic to reach a little farther.
I take my poppy off the shelf. It’s solidly middle of the road—nowhere near as bright as Brooke’s, not as faint as Winnie’s. After my unimpressive display with the snowdrops, I’m half-expecting it not to flash at all. Maybe it’ll even weaken. That’s happened before, once to Elle and twice to Winnie, and it’s not an outcome you want.
It doesn’t happen to me today. I get a little flash, comparable to Winnie’s. I’ll take it.
Excerpted from A Dark and Starless Forest. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Hollowell. Reproduced by permission of Clarion Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.