Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild by Philip Reeve children’s fantasy book reviewsUtterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild by Philip Reeve children’s fantasy book reviewsUtterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild by Philip Reeve

In his review for Skye McKenna’s Hedgewitch, Reeve said: “there are only two sorts of fantasy story: the ones that feel fake and the ones that feel real. It’s hard to explain the difference but you know the real ones when you read them.”

I know exactly what he’s talking about, because he writes the real ones too. His depiction of Faerie – that ancient place where all the fairy tales come from – captures its mystery and danger and uncanny beauty as it also exists in books like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, here told with Reeve’s elegance of plot and richness of character.

I’m not sure he knows this, but he wrote this book for me personally. It contains everything I look for in a dark fairy tale.

Some months after the events of the first book, Utterly is celebrating the wedding of her uncle Will and the troll-woman Aish with the rest of the inhabitants of Wildsea Island. But even as she begins her honeymoon, Aish is aware of an ancient power that has recently awakened, one that takes the form of a great black stag. Sensing the danger it embodies, she leaps at the chance for her new husband and niece to travel to the Isle of Summertide at the behest of Will’s cousin, who has invited him to investigate a primitive stone circle there.

Little does Aish realize that she’s sending them into the very heart of the threat, and it’s only a matter of time before ancient doors are opened, priceless treasures are found, an unscrupulous villain makes a terrible mistake, and Utterly discovers more about her connection with that other, shadowy realm known as the Underwood.

Plotwise, it’s not quite as twisty and intricate as the kind of puzzle-box plotting found in Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver or Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, but all the moving parts click together very elegantly, and the story even contains a touch of folk horror when it comes to the great horned Hunter with his spear and horn, and the primitive chalk drawing of him up on the hillside. If Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep was all about the ocean depths and the mysteries therein, then this sequel takes us to the wild spaces of the ancient forests: the creatures that live hidden in the undergrowth, the reds and golds of late summer, and the liminal realms of distant treelines and abandoned barrows and churchyard lychgates.

As ever, Reeve’s prose describes everything so clearly and concisely. Take this scene, for example:

As [Utterly] watched, a new toadstool pushed its way up through the skeleton leaves that lay like lace upon the surface. Corpse-white like the rest, but soon far larger, it shouldered its neighbours aside. As it rose, its domed top spread out into a parasol three feet across, perched like a broad brimmed hat upon a slender white stalk twice as tall as Utterly. In the shadows beneath the hat, two jet-black eyes opened, and regarded Utterly beadily… slender arms split from the toad’s stalk with soft tearing sounds. Delicate white hands reached out to Utterly, beckoning her forward into the waiting ring.

It is a large sentient mushroom, who goes on to tell her:

These woods are very big, and my empire extends through every part of them. I have my outposts in the south-country where great armoured lizards lie dozing in the warm pools, and in the north, where the trees are all hard green needles and the wolves howl all night long. Deeper than the deepest roots my pale children serve, and my lookouts keep their garrisons on the heights of the highest branches.

I just want to crawl into this book and live there forever. I already have the third and final instalment, Utterly Dark and the Tides of Time, at hand – but how can I read it? As soon as it’s done, it’ll be over forever!

Published in 2022. Utterly Dark has a special connection to the sea. But it is tested more than ever before, this autumn on the island of Summertide. Accompanying her uncle as he explores mysterious Summertide, Utterly is witness to strange happenings in the woods. Deep, old magic abounds, and threatens to steal those she loves most. Utterly must face truths about what lies beneath the land, and in her own past, if she is to save anyone. And she must make a sacrifice to the sea… An enchanting story of nature, magic and friendship, from the renowned author of Mortal Engines.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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