The Phantom Forest by Liz Kerin
Kerin’s debut novel is instantly gripping with poetic prose that flows easily off the page and sets a truly haunting mood for the reader. I was hopelessly entranced and am hungry for more of this story!
About the Book
Publisher: Inkshares | Release Date: July 16, 2019 | Pages: 300
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy | Format: Paperback ARC | Source: Publisher
Seycia’s father told her this story as a child — a story of the most holy place in the Underworld, The Forest of Laida, where all souls go to rest before embarking on a new life. But Seycia’s father is dead now, and his killer has put a target on her back.
After being chosen for her village’s human sacrifice ritual, Seycia is transported to the Underworld and must join forces with Haben, the demon to whom she was sacrificed, to protect the family she left behind from beyond the grave. In this story of love, survival, and what it means to be human, Seycia and Haben discover that the Underworld is riddled with secrets that can only be unlocked through complete trust and devotion, not only to their mission, but also to one another.
This post uses affiliate links and I may receive a small commission for purchases made through my links at no additional cost to you. Click here for more info.
Friends, I loved reading this debut fantasy novel so much! The Phantom Forest has all the ingredients that I live for in a good story: rich worldbuilding with an emphasis on religion and lyrical writing that sucked me in on the first page. This is a dark, gruesome, and bloody story that won’t be for everyone so please do check the content warnings at the bottom of the review.
“In this place meant for the dead, she finally felt the weight of life, of connection, of eternity. Nothing was ever lost.”
I had so many questions while reading this book, but not in a bad way if that makes sense. The world the Kerin crafted for us is so intricately disturbing that it is like a car wreck that we cannot look away from. Who are these people? What are they being punished for? The worldbuilding is both slow and all at once as the reader is thrust into the deep end of the world but never given too much at any given time. I was hungry for more much like the Savage hungers.
The Phantom Forest is told mostly in the three alternating third-person perspectives of Seycia, Miko, and Haben, with the addition of a couple chapters from General Simeon’s perspective.
✨ Seycia is a brave and selfless nineteen year old who’s seen her fair share of heartache over the last seven years. With both her parents killed by General Simeon during the initial occupation, she’s been taking care of her brother as best as she can. The love that she feels for Miko is palpable and I appreciate how so much of this story centers on their sibling love and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the other.
✨ Miko is full of the naivete and rigid belief of right prevailing that one can expect from a twelve year old. He’s a child who’s lost everything and everyone, who wants to take matters into his own hands. While headstrong characters who do whatever they want without thinking first typically drive me bonkers, these characteristics really endeared Miko to me and I was rooting for him. But I was also glad that he wasn’t an instant sharpshooter.
✨ Haben is a demon known as The Savage, Dhov’s messenger whose purpose is to scare humans so they continue to fear the Underworld. The book opens with his perspective and I was honestly drawn to him right away; he hasn’t retained much of his humanity since taking Dhov’s curse and his character arc is by far my favorite. I love Haben and he must be protected at all costs.
We all know that I struggle a bit with multiple POV narratives and I will admit that it took a bit of time for me to adjust. The first 20% of the book was solely told from Seycia’s and Haben’s perspectives as their paths inevitably converge, after which we have two storylines: one in the Underworld and following the family that Seycia left behind (Miko). By this point I was fully invested in Seycia and her story, so it did take some time for me to warm up to Miko’s own journey but once I did I was hooked and finished the rest of the book in one sitting.
This is an action-packed story and there is so much within its 300 pages. I felt most connected with Haben and his character development; I feel like Miko and Seycia’s arcs and stories are just getting started in comparison. I still adore them both and am incredibly invested in what happens next for them.
“Discovery of the afterlife had had irreparable consequences, so the Coalition abolished the notion of gods, fate, and prayer, worldwide. And yet, people worshiped the emperor now. Their proverb promoted the very thing they had destroyed: blind faith.”
The Phantom Forest is definitely a philosophical exploration into the afterlife, but it also explores the power dynamics of an oppressive conquering regime, the erosion of cultural practices, and the glimmer of hope at the sight of rebellion. The book takes place seven years after The Coalition came into power and religious practices were outlawed… expect in Khronasa where General Simeon kept up the annual sacrifice to the Savage ritual going as a means of control. But Simeon’s control is weakening as the status quo is challenged.
But this is also a story about love and sacrifice, about good and evil, about redemption. A thread in much of the story is whether or not a soul starts life with a tabula rasa or if a bad soul can atone in the next life. Who becomes worthy of second chances and who gets to make those decisions?
“She glanced over the edge of the boat at the misty river and swallowed a shriek as she watched a translucent hand emerge from the water to nudge the boat along.”
I really connected with Kerin’s writing style, her descriptions are so detailed and vivid that I was able to picture everything without it feeling too cumbersome. You can definitely tell that she is a storyteller and I look forward to watching her continue to hone her craft. People who struggle with purple prose and heavy imagery may have a tough time with this book, but it really worked for me.
I was left wanting to know a bit more about how the sacrifices were chosen by Simeon, his motives, and his history. We got a couple of chapters from his perspective but I didn’t find that they really added to the story in a meaningful way for me. (Although we got some crucial information by one of these chapters that explains a lot but also leaves me with some questions.) His villainy never really felt fully realized to me.
Overall, The Phantom Forest delivered on what I was expecting and I really enjoyed my time reading it (barring those rough couple of chapters)! I love stories that explore concepts of the afterlife and encourage me to wax poetic, this book weaves its own mythology so vast that it’s impressive it’s all packed into 300 pages. If you like epic adventures, redemption arcs, mythology, and vivid imagery then I encourage you to give this book a try!
CONTENT WARNINGS: (from author’s website) ritual human sacrifice, suicidal ideation, metaphors about disordered eating, brief threat of sexual violence, cannibalism, child abduction, genocide, dead parents, gun violence
Many thanks to Inkshares for sending me an ARC for my honest review! Quotes are taken from an unfinished ARC and may not match final publication.
🤝 I buddy read The Phantom Forest with Sophia @ Bookwyrming Thoughts.