fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe White Forest by Adam McOmberThe White Forest by Adam McOmber

“It was in the flow of that great primordium that I saw something astonishing – a final vision: a vast and wild image of myself.”

In The White Forest, Adam McOmber attempts a Victorian-style thriller, a spooky gothic in the style of Henry James. The story follows three young people on London’s Hampstead Heath, during or shortly after the Crimean War. Nathan Ashe is a young aristocrat, a gentleman, always curious, whose seeking has become more desperate since he has returned from the war. Madeline Lee is a gentleman’s daughter whose photographer father has been shunned by society for the subject of his daguerreotypes, and Jane Silverlake is an enigma, an isolated young woman with a strange and powerful gift.

Jane is a first person narrator, and while not exactly unreliable, she creates doubt in the mind of the reader simply by the way she releases information, her timing. From the second chapter, McOmber makes it clear that Jane does know more than she is telling, or at least knows more than she is telling when she tells it.

Jane is looking back at a series of events in her life; events that seemed to start with the sudden disappearance of Nathan. Nathan’s disappearance is not the beginning of Jane’s story, though. In many ways it is closer to the end. Jane has grown up in a lonely house on Hampstead Heath, with her father and a few servants for company. Her mother died strangely, speaking of the Lady of the Flowers before she passed away. After her mother’s death, Jane began to hear sounds from man-made objects. Soon this power deepened and she began to draw information from these artifacts. When Jane touched a person, her ability transferred to them, temporarily. Jane, a lonely girl, confided this strange ability to her only friends, Nathan and Madeline. Madeline was frightened by it, but Nathan was intrigued, and more. He began to see Jane as a portal, a door to another plane or dimension.

One of McOmber’s triumphs is that this book is so compelling I hated to put it down, even though none of the three main characters is likeable. Jane hovers on the cusp of likeability, but her bullying of those one rung below her on the social ladder – the servants – lost my sympathy, and her excuse that they were mean to her when she was a child was a weak one. Still, I did not want to stop reading, as Jane described her dreams or visions of the white forest and the woman in the red robe; as she talked about the booming and chiming of snuff boxes, hope chests, houses, and carriages; or as I read, along with Jane, through the increasingly incoherent entries in Nathan’s war journal, when he was stationed on the Isle of Malta. Near the end of book, when Jane puts all the pieces together, she takes action in a way that redeems her and makes her admirable.

In the story’s present, Nathan’s family has hired the famous French detective Inspector Vidocq to investigate their son’s disappearance. Nathan had fallen under the influence of a man named Ariston Day, a reputed spiritual seeker with a very dark past whose male followers wear red jackets and call themselves Fetches. The red jackets function, symbolically, at several levels. They can be confused with the British army uniform, the one that Nathan himself wears on Malta; they represent blood; they are a male reflection of the raiment of the red-robed woman whose image appears more and more frequently as the book draws to a close.

Day himself is not seen until late in the book, but we do see the Fetches, and their menace is immediate. Jane has increasingly disturbing visions of events at Day’s “temple,” visions involving Nathan and a bloody sacrifice. Meanwhile, she reveals more of herself and her mother; and learns more about the woman in the red robe, the Lady of the Flowers.

McOmber convincingly describes otherworldly experiences in a way that is not modern. There is a disturbing, “otherly” feel to Jane’s visions. The vibrations and sounds human-crafted objects emit are frightening and the role of the woman in red becomes more crucial and strange. Jane recounts a trek she and Nathan made, deep into the heath, to find the cottage of an old woman hanged as a witch, nicknamed Mother Damnable, and the descriptions of the shadowed forest and the sordid cottage are atmospheric, lingering with me after I closed the book.

Jane’s struggle, first to just have friends, but later to find autonomy and her own destiny, is believable. Early in the book, in a paragraph verging on self-pity but not quite crossing that line, Jane says of her hope chest:

I kept few items in the chest. Once when Maddy looked inside, she said it appeared as though I didn’t have any hope at all. This was meant as a bit of humor, of course, but I felt the sting of tears when she said it. For a long time, I hadn’t had much hope, though when she and Nathan came into my life I believed that could change.

Jane not only struggles with her inner conflicts but with the men around her who want to control her, specifically Nathan and Ariston Day, both of whom talk about her in geographical terms, a continent to be opened and explored. Jane confronts Day about this.

“Why is it that all men wish to explore me?” I asked.

It is up to Jane to explore herself, to come to a conclusion herself about what her power signifies, if she is to prevail.

For me, the Victorian illusion was not perfect. The stray anachronism, or at least things that seemed anachronistic, (“snuck” instead of “sneaked” for one; “manipulative” used to describe behavior for another), broke the spell for me. These are tiny lapses in a dense, intricate, concentrated work that tries to transport the reader twice; once to a Victorian England none of us has seen, and once again to another world entirely. At this, McOmber was successful. If you like works that are truly in the Victorian style and create a sense of otherworldliness and dread, go get The White Forest immediately.

Publisher: Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret—an unexplainable and frightening gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects—and this talent isolates her from the outside world. She finds solace in her only companions, Madeline and Nathan, but as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by jealousies and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. A year later, Nathan has vanished, and the famed Inspector Vidocq arrives in London to untangle the events that led up to Nathan’s disappearance. As a sinister truth emerges, Jane realizes she must discover the origins of her talent, and use it to find Nathan herself, before it’s too late.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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