ARC Review – ‘What The Woods Keep’ by Katya de Becerra

Title: What The Woods Keep
Author: Katya de Becerra
Genre: YA, Fantasy, Sci-fi
Date of Publication: 26th September, 2018
Word/Page Count: 352 pages (paperback)
Synopsis: (from Goodreads)

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On her eighteenth birthday, Hayden inherits her childhood home—on the condition that she uncover its dark secrets.

Hayden tried to put the past behind her, and it worked. She’s getting ready for college, living in a Brooklyn apartment, and hanging out with her best friend and roommate Del. But now it’s all catching up with her: her mother’s mysterious disappearance a decade before, her father’s outlandish theories about a lost supernatural race, and Hayden’s own dark dreams of strange symbols and rituals in the Colorado woods where she grew up.

As soon as Hayden arrives at her hometown, her friend Del in tow, it begins: Neighbors whisper secrets about Hayden’s mother; the boy next door is now all grown-up in a very distracting way; and Hayden feels the trees calling to her. And among them, deep in the woods, Hayden will discover something incredible—something that threatens reality itself.

With its spooky cover and intriguing blurb, What The Woods Keep has been on my TBR for a while. I crossed my fingers and requested this book from the publisher – and to my utter delight, I received a copy in the mail soon after! Even better, this lived up to my high expectations, so winning on all fronts here. 😀

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First things first, our protagonist Hayden is a quirky, level-headed and relatable character. I never wanted to smack my head into a table at her being dense or making stupid decisions, so she’s already in a league of great YA heroines! Hayden instantly endeared herself to me with her snarky observations and dry wit, and she remained sympathetic and easy to root for throughout the story. Even on the rare occasion where she made a questionable choices like keeping secrets to herself or trying to go it alone, I still understood where she was coming from emotionally.

My main motivation for wanting to read this was the promise of a ‘cool girl friendship’ and What The Woods Keep really delivered, the highlight of the story was the relationship between Hayden and her best friend Del.

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‘…our spirits high on Buffy and cheap tequila, we made a pact: to watch all sci-fi movies ever made; to always have each other’s backs; and to grow old together, or at least side by side, in case we ever moved out of our brownstone fortress…’

I’ve never been this jealous of a fictional friendship, talk about BFF goals! It’s unfortunately rare to have female friendship at the center of a YA book, and even if it exists, it normally doesn’t survive first contact with the love interest, but that convention was flipped on its head here – even once Shannon enters the scene maybe halfway through the story, he still never overshadows Del’s importance. The girls have a lovely supportive and empowering friendship that feels genuine and earned, and I also appreciate how well-developed Del is; we get to see her family, find out some of her backstory and she even has her own flirtation with another character, so Del isn’t just an appendage to Hayden’s story, she exercises her own agency!

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Unfortunately because this is described as a ‘dark fantasy’, Del also goes through some traumatizing events so it’s not all sunshine and roses, but I love how ride-or-die Hayden is for Del. As much as it may seem to be all about Hayden given that she is the protagonist and the events literally unfold because of her presence, Del isn’t just a side character to her, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that her friend is safe and sound. ❤

A unique feature in What The Woods Keep is the inclusion of personal text elements like Hayden’s  journal entries as well as ‘official documents’ such as medical notes, incident reports and newspaper articles. I thought these were fantastic – the former offered greater insight into her character, and the latter either provided context for events in the story that Hayden wasn’t privy to or information she didn’t have access to (and therefore we wouldn’t know since this is written in the first person perspective), such as her childhood psych sessions. These snippets really played into the horror angle! I love the creepy little kid trope, and this was almost like an alter ego since her younger self was so different to the Hayden we know. I can totally see those scenes playing out in flashbacks in a movie, they were so chilling and vivid!

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She’s a very logical person driven by facts and reason and embraces the scientific method, and I enjoyed seeing her working through the puzzling occurrences that take place around her, trying to find a rational explanation, and gradually coming to accept paranormal possibilities. Some readers may find it annoying to have the flow of the story broken with Hayden’s segues into scientific theories or debates on mythology, but I thought it revealed a lot about her coping mechanisms and view on the world, besides which I found it really interesting. My interest is always more on characterization, so a conversational style of storytelling suits me just fine. 🙂

Moving on to the setting, it was perfectly spooky! From the moment that the girls step foot in the unexpectedly well-maintained manor with its fully stocked pantry and fresh linens (despite being supposedly abandoned since Hayden’s childhood), nothing seemed normal in Promise, Colorado. It only gets weirder from there with white ravens, uncanny locals with hypnotic abilities, unnatural weather and oh, the town casually rearranging its geography to keep the girls trapped there.

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I loved that Hayden and Del acknowledged there were some creepy shenanigans going on and that it would be in their best interests to bail as quickly as possible, hurrah for sensible thinking in a horror story! Of course they couldn’t actually leave as that wouldn’t serve the plot, but it’s just a relief to see characters try to do the reasonable thing for a change! And this worked well in amping up the creep factor when Promise wouldn’t let them go. :O

And what about the plot? I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but hints of Thor wasn’t on the list! It gave me a kick to see what looked like Marvel references to Midgard and Niflheim, even though I know the movie writers would’ve pilfered it from Norse mythology as well. The intermixing of science and magic in this story wouldn’t be out of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, actually.

It was fun to learn about the Nibelungs, which I’d never heard of before, and you can tell how much research the author did, but all the details relating to the mythology as well as the more down-to-earth science facts and theories were incorporated in an easily digestible and interesting manner. I didn’t feel like I was being lectured to, but like a friend was telling me all about something cool she’d learned. I enjoyed the balance between the paranormal activity (within the manor, in the titular woods and the creepy locals) and the dubious agenda of the military camp established at the blood drive. There were a lot of elements at work, but the author expertly juggled them all and gave enough page time to develop each of these plot threads.

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My only criticism is that I feel the ending was a little rushed – I paced myself while reading this so that I could savor a few chapters a day, and that helped me really immerse myself in this world, but that ending felt like it zipped by! We had this wonderful slow-building mystery with scares and revelations carefully spaced out, hooking the reader while also answering a couple questions so as not to frustrate for too long, but the ending would’ve benefited with the same care towards its pacing.

I also would’ve liked to see more of the aftermath and how the characters move on from the events of the novel instead of a cliffhanger ending, but from reading this interview with the author, it seems that was a deliberate writing choice. While there isn’t a guaranteed sequel, there is the chance some of the lingering questions we have will be answered, perhaps in novella form! I’ll keep my fingers crossed…

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On a personal note, I didn’t feel that the romance between Hayden and Shannon was particularly compelling. I wasn’t rooting for them since I found his initial rudeness towards her off-putting; she moved away when she was a child, don’t hold a grudge over something out of her control! It’s a bit hard to keep in touch when one is institutionalized and medicated for years, perhaps he could’ve been a little more compassionate! Shannon certainly had a rough childhood, but I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to compare their respective upbringings as though she hadn’t been through trauma as well.

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However this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story as it didn’t take up too much page-time, and I’m glad that their relationship wasn’t the result of the dreaded insta-love! At least they have the foundation of an intensely co-dependent childhood friendship to build on, so there was some basis for the romance, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea.

In short

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Pros: amazing female friendship, addictive writing, wonderfully creepy atmosphere, unique and intelligent plot, fun additional text elements

Cons: under-baked romance, rushed ending

Personal Rating: 4 out of 5 kitties recommend this box.

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Disclaimer: I voluntarily read and reviewed a physical copy free from Allen & Unwin Book Publishers. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

14 thoughts on “ARC Review – ‘What The Woods Keep’ by Katya de Becerra

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