The Phantom Forest by Liz Kerin. Book review

The Phantom Forest by Liz Kerin, 325pp, P/B, £14.59 Inkshares.

Reviewed by Steve Dean

Let’s get some stuff out of the way first, and then dive into the review proper. Inkshares isn’t a traditional vanity publishing company, but a sort of hybrid. Authors can list their works on the Inkshares site and whether their work gets published properly is dependant on how well it does and how many pre-orders it gets. As you can imagine, this isn’t a perfect system and is open to abuse, but I quite like the idea. Certainly beats the soul-sucking vanity presses.

The book itself is advertised as being YA and Epic Fantasy. I’m not sure if this is the author or Inkshares, but depending on your definition of YA, 13 to 18 or so, although this varies widely, then it’s not. I’d say a mature 16+, I think it’s too dark for anyone younger. As for epic, it certainly isn’t. LoTR is epic, GoT is epic, Hunger Games is over-rated. This is just a novel, epic in neither length nor scope.

Right, let’s get down to it (finally). Seycia and her brother, Miko, are orphans living in a dystopia. All they have is each other and a few humble possessions. Sometime in the past it was discovered the Underworld was a real place, containing within it the Forest of Laida. Each tree in the forest holds the immortal soul of a human, which it returns to at death and is delivered from at re-birth.

Seycia is chosen to be sacrificed by the town headman, and although the ritual goes ahead, the demon summoned to take her to the Underworld doesn’t kill her, but rescues her instead for his own purposes. Meanwhile, despite his young age, Miko joins the above-ground resistance as they fight back against the tyranny.

Right from the very first page you’re drawn into the dark atmosphere of the world. There’s an expectant menace in every situation, even the domestic scenes. Above all else, this atmosphere is what makes the story work, it’s the foundation for all the rest.

The plot is cleverly woven, split between Seycia and Miko, sometimes joining to good effect. It’s also very original and not at all what I was expecting from a dystopian setting.

The characters are all well-drawn and three dimensional, believable and generally don’t act out of character even when doing things they shouldn’t. I did think the pacing was a little level, and the ending not as ‘big’ as I’d hoped, but it’s certainly a page turner. It’s also well written grammatically, I only spotted a few typos, the whole thing is of a very high standard. The price is too high, which reveals its vanity press genes, probably double that of the usual paperback, and this is a problem. The author should probably rethink her marketing strategy.

Surprisingly, this is the author’s first novel and on this evidence I’d say dark fiction has a new rising star. The publishing method has certainly worked in this case and I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms Kerin.