I enjoy a good fantastical forest novel as much as the next guy.
Gene Wolfe’s dependably polished writing delivers thrills and chills in this relatively early work. Set alongside Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Peace, The Devil in a Forest reads almost like children’s literature. That is not to say that it is not well-conceived and substantial. However, it is pretty straightforward in its plot and characters. It conveys many traditional storytelling devices through effective dialogue and complex motivations, and is reminiscent of Robin Hood. (Just don’t go walking into a forest alone if you live in Dark Ages Europe).
Truth is an elusive specter in this murder-filled adventure. The perspective is skewed by narrative distance and enhanced by precise description. Historically accurate weapons and surgery places these events some time in the remote past, more pagan than Christian. This is a time for alchemy and witches to hold sway over superstitious townsfolk. Wolfe peppers the dialogue with subtle variance – not a real language barrier by any means, but just enough archaism to flavor and flesh-out the characters.
For a pulp s-f, pseudo-obscure adventure tale the prose is too heady. For canon Gene Wolfe readers, this is definitely a minor work, reading more like the aborigine section of Fifth Head of Cerberus than otherwise. I was nonetheless intrigued and enthused by the quick pace, the mysterious atmosphere and the careful world-building. I become a bigger Wolfe fan with every foray into his oeuvre , but this is not the place to start if you are new.
The Barrow Man and lady Cloot were enjoyable versions of medieval legends/ folktale elements. Without them, this book would have bordered on pedestrian. It needed an infusion of magical realism, to undercut the vicious backwoods mentality of its characters. Make it a point not to miss this delightful novel.