Katya de Becerra’s debut YA fantasy novel What the Woods Keep follows the story of Hayden Bellatrix Holland, who is bequeathed her deceased mother’s family estate on her eighteenth birthday. But she can only receive the bequest if she adheres to the following conditions:
Look for the gifts I left at the Manor.
Use my gifts to destroy my darkest secret.
Trust no one where my treasure is concerned, especially ravens.
Hayden and her best friend Del take a detour from college in Brooklyn to Colorado to stay in the manor that Hayden barely remembers. On the edge of a sinister wood, the house and its surrounds are eerie and strange, and she begins to unravel the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and her father’s obsession with a race of supernatural beings from ancient mythology. As the tension builds and things begin to unravel, will Hayden have what it takes to defeat whatever is in those woods? Or will it remain a dark, painful mystery forever?
I love a dark fantasy, I love Gothic undertones and retold fairy tales, and I especially love a good YA mystery thriller. Becerra has all the ingredients for a brilliant dark YA fantasy novel, and it mostly comes together. The mystery and tension build slowly, each new question tantalising as it barely answers the previous ones, leading us from mystery to mystery as everything builds to a terrifying crescendo. Hayden’s grief from her mother’s disappearance is visceral, and her strained relationship with her father adds to the overall tension and question of what really happened when Hayden was a child. But as the pressure builds and the mystery is finally beginning to unravel, I had the horrible realisation that there was only fifteen pages left to resolve every question that had been raised, then ten, then five, then it ended abruptly with no sign of there ever being a sequel. Abrupt and inconclusive endings can be a great way to leave the reader with just enough of the mystery and tension of a thriller or horror to keep them thinking about it, but in this case it was mostly just frustrating. Not enough of the character arcs were concluded, resolved, or even mentioned after a certain point, and although the central mysteries were explained, it was not enough to be fully satisfying and round out the story.
Overall, What the Woods Keep is a solid debut fantasy novel, and I look forward to Becerra’s second book, Oasis, released this year. I would recommend this work to anyone who likes a YA novel where an ordinary character sets out on a quest to unravel a mystery and confront the forces of evil in a fantasy-eqsue battle for reality itself. It peaks in the middle and the tension-filled atmosphere is its biggest strength, so try not to be disappointed by the abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying ending.