From the publisher: “In this hauntingly original debut novel about a young woman whose peculiar abilities help her infiltrate a mysterious secret society, Adam McOmber uses fantastical twists and dark turns to create a fast-paced, unforgettable story.
Young Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret—an unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects—and this talent isolates her from the outside world. Her greatest joy is wandering the wild heath with her neighbors, Madeline and Nathan. But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. Day encourages his followers to explore dream manipulation with the goal of discovering a strange hidden world, a place he calls the Empyrean.
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.”
Jane is a strange, sometimes cruel, child living in a crumbling house near the Hampstead Heath. Her father, having withdrawn from society following her mother’s death, is a figure that is not strongly present in her life. It is following the death of her mother that Jane begins to possess a mysterious power; she hears and sees the souls of man-made objects. What’s more, she can transfer her power by a simple touch. As she gets older, her ability begins to mutate beyond sounds and colors – she begins glimpsing another world.
Though somewhat reclusive, Jane comes to the attention of Madeline, who takes her under her wing. It’s through Madeline that Jane meets Nathan and together they become an unlikely trio. It is through her friendships that Jane begins to hope that someday she can have a full life, even fall in love. Jane thinks knows that she can trust them, revealing her power. Madeline is repulsed, but Nathan is fascinated. Tension begins to build between the three, as both Madeline and Jane fall in love with Nathan (who has returned from the Crimean war a changed man).
As Nathan’s fascination with Jane grows (vexing Madeline), he comes to believe she is the doorway to another world known as the Empyrean. Though he promised to keep this knowledge to himself, he reveals it to fanatical cult leader Ariston Day. As Nathan falls further under the enthralling leader’s spell, he withdraws further and further away from the two women who love him – until one day he just disappears…As Jane begins to have visions of a frightened Nathan, she knows she must be the one to find him and bring him back, before it’s too late.
I should preface this review by saying I absolutely loved this novel, it was by far my favorite read of the summer (hopefully, I can form a few coherent thoughts). The White Forest by Adam McOmber is a beautifully rendered, darkly imagined cross between Gothic mystery and historical fantasy. Set in Victorian era London, The White Forest delves into secret societies, higher planes, and psychic abilities. The novel practically drips with darkly seductive, visceral imagery. It truly is a wonderful book to experience as a reader. The language is richly evocative of both place and feeling. The main characters are all deeply flawed – each driven by their obsessive and possessive natures. Madeline desires Nathan, Nathan desires spiritual enlightenment, and Jane innately, perhaps even unknowingly, desires the power her ability gives her over others as she willfully causes both fear and fascination in those around her. Jane may consider her “gift” a curse, but she enjoys the fear she inspires in her maids, the fascination she evokes in Nathan, and perhaps her singular ability to be the one to find Nathan once he disappears. They each recklessly pursue their own desires at any cost to each other. The characters may not be likeable but they are quite human.
While The White Forest initially starts out as a Gothic historical novel with paranormal underpinnings, it quickly becomes clear that there will be more to it than simply a mysterious disappearance. As historical novel gives way to historical fantasy with hints of horror, The White Forest’s initially slow pace soon becomes increasingly frenetic as Jane struggles to understand herself, the implications of her power, and her connection to Nathan. The imaginative story is filled with dark twists and turns, leading to a surprising, if slightly less than satisfying, ending.
Ultimately, I found The White Forest to be a beautifully written and richly imaginative – a rather unexpected debut novel. I enjoy the fact that I’ve never read anything quite like it, but that it is still reminiscent of the best qualities of gothic and Victorian literature. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy or gothic fiction, this is a must read. This is one of my favorite debut novels of the year, right along with Something Red by Douglas Nicholas. Bottom line: 5/5, read it if you get the chance.