Into the Heartless Wood, by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Everyone knows that the best books maximize your emotions: you laugh like an idiot, you weep like a baby, and your thoughts spin madly in circles. Everyone also knows that the best fairy tales show you the best and worst of humanity in the most magical ways. Probably not since Wildwood Dancing has a fantasy captured my imagination the way Into the Heartless Wood did.

Owen Merrick lives in a city at the edge of a magical, dangerous wood. For years, eight tree sirens have lured humans into the woods with their music, sacrificing those souls to the Gwydden, the witch who controls the forest. One day, Owen follows his wayward sister into the woods, encountering the youngest of the tree sirens. In a strange turn of events, the siren lets Owen and his sister go. Owen and the siren, whom he christens Seren (meaning “star”) strike up a friendship, not long before the tension between Owen’s kingdom and the Gwydden comes to a head…

Owen’s story begins in a manner very conventional to fairy tales: he has to save his sibling from magical forces. It’s easy to sympathize with Owen because he lives in a world on the brink of destruction, but he still finds beauty in the stars that he helps his father chart. He loves his dear little sister but also misses his mother. In all, it’s easy to follow him.

But it’s even easier to sympathize with Seren. Although she was created to reap terrified souls for the Gwydden to eat, she wants to feel loved for the person she could be, and not the monster she was created to be. 

While Seren is an overall gentle individual, she still carries an admirable elegance and power to her. She does not want to hurt people, but she will if someone she cares about is in danger. She has the power to consume and destroy souls, but she is too gentle to want that. The next time people complain that gentle characters are boring, I’ll point them toward Seren. 

While Owen’s chapters are written in regular prose, Seren’s are written in verse. The jagged lines of poetry carry you through Seren’s life like a song: almost like Seren is singing the story to you. Seren’s yearning for love and freedom, spawned through the Gwydden and the other tree sirens’ abuse, creates a great sense of melancholy. But her voice is hypnotic, at times gentle and light, at other times sad and heavy, just like a forest wind.

In short, both Owen and Seren’s worlds force them to find solace in the other, and their innocent moments of discovery together are so sweet, their bond so tender and warm. The more charged moments between them are just achingly lovely.

The story that unfolds around the two, while as old as fairy tales themselves, still feels pretty epic. The moments of darkness (a woman tears through her own flesh to pull out her own heart) and the moments of madness (a man swallows stardust in order to control them) somehow reach deep into your gut and relentlessly hold you down until the last page.

While Owen and Seren’s romance is pretty chaste, their chemistry and emotion were enough to choke me up. It’s been a while since I’ve rooted so much for two people to be together and I haven’t been so relieved at an ending in a long time. 

There were even times where I had to close the book and breathe for a minute. I was going through the story too fast and I didn’t want it to end, although I was desperate to see what would happen. 

Books like Into the Heartless Wood are why I’m convinced that books are the closest thing we have to magic. Some writers can weave a spell so profound that you believe a boy can find love with a tree siren, that a man can command the stars, and that a mother’s love protects her family beyond the grave. You weep and cheer and laugh as though it is all happening before your very eyes. Almost nothing in this world is so amazing or as beautiful as that, and no one can convince me otherwise.

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