Book Review: The Fantasmagorical Forest

The Fantasmagorical Forest, Book One: Two Stones by S.L. Dwyer

Winner of the indieBRAG Medallion

Is it unfair to say that most, or at least many, teenage girls have a tendency toward self-absorption and hyperbole? In that context, what is the worst thing that could happen in their world? Loss of phone privileges? No trips to the mall? A summer filled with boredom and loathing? “This is going to be the worst summer I ever spent in my whole life.”

forestFifteen-year-old Katelin is a typical teenager who, like many others, has had to face some extra reality during these tough years, in coping with the death of her father. As the one-year anniversary approaches, she retreats into her familiar zone, reacting strongly and negatively to whatever does not match her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this is pretty much everything, given that her mother is setting Katelin and her younger brother up for some summer with their great grandmother in the Appalachian valley.

Far removed from friends, malls, pool parties and anything else teenager-friendly that would keep her days filled and memories at bay, Katelin is in no mood to hear her mother’s hint about the surrounding forest when she repeats the adage about looks being deceiving. “’Sure,’ Katelin thought. ‘It looks just like it should—a place in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from anything. Nothing deceiving about that.’”

Author S.L. Dwyer gives readers a view to what Katelin takes in—or sees and rejects—as they approach the isolated home. In a “cozy cup of lush forests,” a “blanket of buttercups” leads to a comfortable-looking home with wraparound porch and filled with country décor and appetizing food. Nana, as their mother calls the grandmother she herself spent time every summer with as a child, gives Katelin space to be as eleven-year-old Simon introduces himself to the older woman and eagerly opens up to their new circumstances.

While periodically readers will find themselves almost comforted by lush descriptive terms, this isn’t Dwyer’s only strength. She has an ear for teen and pre-teen verbiage and uses it effectively to satisfy young adult as well as adult readers. Phrases such as “Jeez, Katelin, why the baditude?” and Katelin’s overuse of “like” will be familiar to and fit in the ears of the younger set, while increasingly sophisticated verbiage draws them into narrative patterns also satisfying to an adult audience.

Katelin, however, isn’t quite there yet, and though she eventually allows Simon to lead her out of the house, she attempts to be unwilling as each step leads the pair closer to the fantastic within the forest. A morning blueberry-picking excursion that ends late at night as the pair desperately seek the correct path home—following the instructions of a fairy they’d encountered—increases Simon’s sense of adventure, acting as persuasive agent to Katelin’s reticence.

Her instincts seem proven correct when she is forced to enlist Nana’s aid to find Simon, who disappears into a tear between two worlds. While Katelin’s interest is secretly aroused, and her curiosity piqued regarding what other secrets the forest keeps, her brother’s rescue also debilitates and angers her. This is confirmed when their frightened Nana warns them from the forest and shortly after vanishes. The children embark on a quest to find her, requiring Katelin to take a stand and move forward to rescue the only person responsible for their well-being.

Dywer solidly handles this back and forth with Katelin, whose behavior realistically vacillates between conceding Simon’s point (“What else are you gonna do all day, sit here staring at the trees?”) and maintaining face by sustaining her anger and the wall she has built to keep it close to her. Fear at times holds her back as her anger slowly fades and her willingness to explore opens up. Her battles with herself and external forces overlap and Dwyer portrays Katelin’s growth process so genuinely that it is easy to forget there actually exist transitions between stubborn retention and moving forward. What occurs to Katelin and her realizations regarding the role she plays in her own misfortunes don’t come in one fell swoop, and even when she has an aha moment, Dwyer wisely makes no attempt to magically transform Katelin into a new person. Growth comes in fits and starts, and I found this pacing of Katelin’s to be one of The Fantasmagorical Forest’s greatest strengths.

Pieced in with all this puzzling is a history the children slowly come to realize, a history of the forest that involves their family, details also revealed at a pace that Dwyer successfully utilizes often for suspense, but also contemplation. When they come upon a precious stone—one of the two in the title—they also learn of a second. What happens when the stones are re-united, however, is unknown, and Katelin will be required to face the consequences if and when it is determined to bring them together at all, and the consequences if they do not.

This and other unknowns are faced and decisions will be made as Simon and Katelin meet and either ally or do battle with a variety of strange and fascinating creatures with an assortment of powers and limitations. The worlds and encounters the children pass through are both charming and alarming, linking back to what their mother had said about appearances, though there are no solid rules for determining which way any creature or entity might lean, or how best to assess who might be a great strength or supporting persona. It is up to Katelin and Simon to learn and adapt to their environment as they seek to ultimately rescue their Nana.

The Fantasmagorical Forest is a fabulous young adult novel suitable for adults, and all audiences will appreciate it as a coming-of-age story. While it contains some familiar elements, it is definitely its own tale. It also leaves open some questions, such as the stones and how they fit into the history, and I look forward to learning more about this mysterious and fantastic valley.


From the author’s website

Born in Connecticut, raised in Florida, and lived all over the country. My residences almost match my careers. I began as a nurse and went back to school for an engineering degree. Then on to finance and technology. Diverse, yes. Satisfying, no. My real love was writing.

bus_cardI am just your average person filling up my own personal space in today’s exciting world. I have always immersed myself in books from a very young age. Traveled to exotic locales and fought for the good side in the land of words written by those who crafted a story that enthralled and entertained.

I don’t write in any particular genre. When I discover a story tumbling around in my head, whatever the genre, I write it. The greatest enjoyment in writing is when the characters begin to steer the story in their own direction. It is truly exciting to find yourself cruising along with your central character, discovering new areas of the book coming not from my own conceptions, but riding the story that evolved through my characters. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else besides writing – books are magic. The world of fiction is so much more exciting than anything you could imagine in everyday life.


Learn more about and follow S.L. Dwyer at her website, and check out her other books, including Dirt, also a winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion. 


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