I received The Killing Woods from Edelweiss as a requested ARC in exchange for an honest review. Expected publication date: January 7, 2014.
Summary + Review
In one of the most intense openings to a book I’ve read, main character Emily watches in disbelief as her dad carries her classmate, Ashlee into the house one night. Disbelief quickly turns to horror when she realizes that Ashlee is dead, seemingly by strangulation, and that her dad is in the midst of a PTSD episode. Authorities put two and two together, and charge Emily’s father with murder.
Emily is certain her dad, even in an unstable mental state, is not capable of killing anyone. Damon, Ashlee’s boyfriend, is equally certain that her dad must be guilty, but he’s less certain about what exactly happened the night of the murder. Because he had been with Ashlee just prior to when she must have been dragged out of the woods, dead. He’d been too high and drunk that night to remember much; all he does remember is being in Darkwood with Ashlee and his friends, playing “the Game.”
The Game began as innocent rough-housing and training for the army between Damon and his best friend Mack, then a few others. The boys chased each other, hid, and fought for one another’s dog collars that they wore while playing. Then beautiful Ashlee asked to join, and the game changed in ways even Damon didn’t at first realize.
As Damon desperately tries to figure out why he wasn’t able to keep Ashlee safe in Darkwood, he seeks out Emily for answers about her dad’s involvement. Despite their friends’ disapproval, Damon and Emily form a sort of unspoken bond and resolve to discover what happened that night in the woods.
Despite the strong start and a strong ending, The Killing Woods was a little stagnant in the middle. I didn’t particularly like Emily or Damon as characters. Emily seemed a little weak, and I don’t mean emotionally weak, which would be understandable with what she was going through; her character didn’t seem to be fleshed-out and was a little all-over-the-place for much of the book. Damon wasn’t particularly likable, either, but I’ll admit that that’s mostly because he only described his relationship with Ashlee in physical terms (if ya know what I’m sayin’). I think I get why Christopher did that…but still. I did warm up to the characters more as the story went on because their introspection (read: brooding) gave way to more action. On that note, this made the plot toward the beginning a little repetitive: Damon mulling over and over what went down during his blackout and Emily mulling over and over her dad’s part in Ashlee’s death. Clues employed by Christopher were also a little improbable…and odd. I won’t discuss all of them because I don’t want to give away spoilers, but early on Emily finds a sketch drawn by her father. It is a deer being chased by wolves. Only the deer has Ashlee’s face on it. In context, this really wasn’t that strange I guess, but I kept picturing a goofy cartoon caricature like the ones people pay for at fairs. (Kinda ruined the dark, suspenseful mood.) Also, it bothered me that parts of the night kept coming back to Damon. After a true drunken blackout, is this even possible?
Once I dismissed the convenient memory recovery and reminded myself that this is fiction after all, I started to really get into the story. I thought I’d completely unraveled the mystery in the first pages, but Christopher does a nice job of shaking things up in the last third of the book. (Although I’ll admit that I’m terrible at solving book mysteries. Just embarrassingly awful.) I flew through the end and was satisfactorily blown away by the conclusion. I also really loved the setting. Darkwood and the bunker Emily’s dad had been known to hunker down in really contribute to the spookiness of the novel. The “killer woods” really do make the story.
This book is written in alternating, dual points of view, switching back-and-forth between Emily and Damon. The voices are pretty distinct, so that never threw me off but can be a factor in reading complexity. Lucy Christopher hails from the UK, so some British terminology may be confusing to American readers. 🙂
The Killing Woods is edgy, to say the least. Besides some pretty graphically described violence, drug use, underage drinking, profanity, and sex/sexual acts are all present. The addition of these, though, is completely necessary to Christopher’s purpose, and I don’t usually say that with YA books this immersed in…inappropriate (for lack of a way better term). The details Christopher gradually unveils about both Emily’s dad and the Game are gut-wrenching, and they are completely instrumental in creating an unsettling atmosphere.
– Independent reading or student-choice book clubs
– Setting. Lucy Christopher uses descriptions of the woods to emphasize the tone. Really, Darkwood is like a character in its importance to the story, and the title could not be more fitting.
– Symbolism. The woods, and how each character describes them, take on symbolic meaning. Towards the end, Emily perceives that feelings of anger, sadness, and violence exist in everyone, “tangled in our own dark forests, wrapped with the secrets we keep.” Note: quote may change by publication.
– [This article for a possible discussion/teaching topic contains a spoiler for the book. Don’t view it until you’ve read the book, or unless you don’t plan to read it.] This news story is somewhat related to the circumstances of Ashlee’s murder. It could certainly be used as a warning for teen students.
Book Talk possible passages: (Note: this will be updated upon the book’s publication. Because it’s an ARC, I cannot quote due to possible changes at publication.)
The Chicken House publishing website has an excerpt of the first part of the book that is super intense! It would make a great teaser/preview in a book talk! Find the excerpt here.
And here’s the author reading part of the same excerpt! (Added 1/12/14):
Lucy Christopher on inspiration behind The Killing Woods (added 1/12/14):
The Killing Woods may be too strong for younger teen readers, due to containing heavy profanity, sex, violence, and drug use. More mature readers who enjoy dark, edgy mysteries may become addicted in the final half of the novel. Readers will enjoy The Killing Woods more by putting aside disbelief at plot improbability prior to starting.