At the edge of a forest that haunts his family, Owen Merrick cares for his baby sister and grieving father. The witch who took Owen’s mother has transformed the trees into sirens that lure people to violent deaths. The sirens are Owen’s sworn enemies, but when he is caught in the woods one day and a siren named Seren rescues him, a tentative trust builds between them. Into the Heartless Wood is a fantasy novel that packs an emotional punch as it explores how doing the right, kind and gentle thing can require far more courage than waging war.
Joanna Ruth Meyer’s choice to place sirens—typically associated with the sea—in a forest setting is wonderfully imaginative. Owen’s cozy home contrasts with scenes of train travel and the bustle of the city. The train runs through the forest, however, which threatens to overtake the kingdom as the witch extracts more souls.
The battle between the witch and the king—and the consequences that befall Owen’s father, an astronomer who foretells some of what’s to come by interpreting messages from constellations—are grand and violent. Seren wants to break with the witch’s destructive ways, and she goes to fantastical lengths to help defeat her and keep watch over Owen. The witch is genuinely scary, and scenes involving the removal of souls are shocking in their cruelty.
Though kingdoms rise and fall, the human soul is at the center of this invented world. Like the woods just beyond Owen’s home, Into the Heartless Wood is easy to get lost in and hard to come back from, thanks to Meyer’s excellent world building.