Gene Wolfe is different from most of us — at least, he’s certainly not like me. When I hear the song “Good King Wenceslas” I may wonder idly when the Feast of Stephen is (it’s December 26th, as I finally learned two years ago), if he was a real person (he was, although he was actually a duke) and, perhaps, if he was as good as all that (I have no idea). Gene Wolfe heard “Good King Wenceslas” and decided to write this book.
The Devil in a Forest is not a Christmas story, though it is a Christian story; the action takes place near and on the Mountain, within the “forest fence” and near a shrine to Saint Agnes, and that is, as far as I can tell, the end of the direct influence of the song on the story. As the story opens, a famed outlaw named Wat has begun to waylay pilgrims to the shrine, leading to a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims and an economic crisis for the village near it. The main character, a teenager named Mark, is recruited into a series of intertwining schemes initiated by Wat’s arrival; almost every character presented aims to benefit somehow by responding to Wat’s brigandage, whether by preventing it, abetting it, or profiting from the confusion it has created.
This serial recruitment is especially important, because one of the main things happening in the story is Mark’s bildungsroman; as the story begins he is pretty clearly a boy, and by the end he is a man — a young man, and not yet a wise one, but one who has accepted the responsibilities of adulthood. Over the course of the book Mark is presented with the opportunity to declare allegiance to various powers and/or world views (I parsed the options as God, Caesar, Mammon, and the titular devil; my brother-in-law plumped for Christianity, paganism, and reason), and his ultimate decision drives the resolution of the story.
The Devil in a Forest is in some ways a very typical Wolfe novel — notably the bildungsroman, the religious and philosophical elements, the rather elaborate framing of the narrative, and questions of identity (which are not nearly as marked as in many of his stories, but are certainly present). For me it was also notable for confounding certain expectations — also a Wolfe speciality. To say too much about this would spoil the effect, so I will only say that I have been habituated by many, many books into expecting a certain kind of plot twist in a novel like this one, and it was quite surprisingly effective at putting me on the wrong foot when the plot did not twist after all.
In other ways, however, The Devil in a Forest is quite atypical for Wolfe. It’s much shorter than many of his works, being a fairly slim standalone novel; it’s historical fiction, rather than science fiction; although it has events which could be interpreted as supernatural, all (with one possible exception in a framing narrative set hundreds of years after the main story) are given a plausible naturalistic explanation. It is also relatively straightforward, although even a straightforward Wolfe novel will probably profit from re-reading just to understand what exactly happened. As a Wolfe aficionado I would rate this a minor work but an enjoyable one, and one of the better entry points to Wolfe’s work for someone who hasn’t read anything of his previously. I don’t think The Devil in a Forest was intentionally directed for a young adult audience, but the age of the protagonist and the coming-of-age theme make it a good choice for a young adult introduction to Wolfe.