The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed fantasy and horror book reviewsThe Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed fantasy and horror book reviewsThe Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

The Butcher of the Forest (2024) is a dark fantastical novella by Premee Mohamed that hearkens back to the original old folktales by refusing to sand off the edges of the genre to make it safe or cozy. More faerie than fairy, as much horror as fantasy, it is as unsettling and bittersweet a read as it is a worthy one.

The tale is set in an empire ruled by The Tyrant, “the man with a thousand names and a thousand cities under his bootheel … bringer of death, lord of war, slaughterer of millions.” We meet him through the eyes of Veris Thorn, who is abruptly brought before him one morning, still in her bedclothes, to be thrown to her knees in his throne room with skulls on the wall to match the one he is drinking from when he tells her why she is there. It turns out that Veris’ village and the Tyrant’s castle lie next to a forest which none dare enter, since all who have done so have been lost forever. Now, “it was really only children that the north woods captured anymore. And even then, it was not the woods, but what lay within them … If you knew that your child had gone into the woods, you simply held a funeral; they were gone, they would never come back.”

Save once. Years ago, Veris had gone in after a child and somehow managed to get back out alive with the child. Now, the Tyrant’s two young children (Eleonor — nine, and Aram — seven), unaware or ignoring the wood’s dangers, have been lost in it, and the Tyrant tells Veris she must return and bring them back alive to him. Failing that, he tells her, “your village will be razed to the ground and burnt, and we will roast your people alive upon it and eat them” (did I mention this hearkens back to the original pre-Disney Grimm stories?)

Veris has no desire to return to the woods she barely escaped once, certainly not at the behest of the man who caused the death of her mother and father, and certainly not to rescue a pair of children likely to be monsters themselves. But the Tyrant has left her no choice and so she sets out. To save her people, yes, but also because, as comes up again and again, because Veris is herself not a monster, nor is she entirely willing to condemn currently innocent children even for the monsters they may (probably will) become.

Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed

The woods themselves are utterly alien, a place wholly its own, where things and creatures are never what they seem, though it is a place not without its own sorts of rules. Bargains can be made, payments offered. Though never without risk. Mohamed lush prose does a wonderful job at creating an atmosphere and world disturbingly askew, one that feels truly other, truly mythic.

The plot is paradoxically fast-moving in slow fashion, with Veris’ journey into and through the woods is tensely compelling. That tension is heightened by the ticking clock nature of the woods’ rules that Veris has only one day from when the children entered to retrieve them, or they must remain forever. We also learn more about Veris’ prior journey and her past life, the facts dribbled out bit by bit, though I don’t think most readers will be particularly surprised by them when they’re revealed, as they’re pretty clearly signposted throughout.

Veris as a character is easy to root for: stolid, determined, persistent, strong in the face of unimaginable (literally) horrors, fiercely protective, and willing to sacrifice herself. She’s also quite self-aware, of her own mistakes, her own weaknesses, her own possible unfairness in speculating at what being the child of the Tyrant means for these children’s alleged innocence, now or in their future.

That idea of “innocence” is a major theme throughout. As is the idea of “monsters,” a common enough point often made in fantasy as one sets literal monsters beside “regular” humans and asks the readers to try and distinguish them. If the metaphor is not particularly subtle here, or if it’s one that feels more than a little familiar, it’s no less effective. Nor, sadly, is it any less timely or necessary (maybe someday).

I won’t say anything about the ending save to remind you again this is more old-school folktale, so anyone looking for a purely happily-ever-after should look elsewhere. The Butcher of the Forest is not without hope or victory, but it is victory tinged with defeat and hope woven through with grief. In other words, it’s life. Highly recommended.

Published in February 2024. At the northern edge of a land ruled by a merciless foreign tyrant lies a wild, forbidden forest ruled by powerful magic. Veris Thorn—the only one to ever enter the forest and survive—is forced to go back inside to retrieve the tyrant’s missing children. Inside await traps and trickery, ancient monsters, and hauntings of the past. One day is all Veris is afforded. One misstep will cost everything.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.