"Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed -- yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil."This is the blurb on the back of the Ace Science Fiction paperback for Gene Wolfe's 1976 novel The Devil in a Forest. From that needlessly effusive set up, one might suppose it to be the starting point to the sort of epic fantasy stories that lines the shelves of bookstores with volume upon volume of goofy color illustrations and prose that would be utterly embarrassing to read out loud. (There's another printing with a description that's even more misleading) The closest Wolfe has come to writing that sort of fiction is The Wizard Knight -- which boasts the unusual quality of having a most conventional fantasy plot which in no way reads like conventional fantasy.
The Devil in a Forest isn't actually fantasy at all, but historical fiction. And rather than "a mighty battle [that] was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil," the conflict is a vortex of people and cultures that was the Medieval age; the story follows the tribulation of a small village caught in the center of it. The seemingly random murder of a traveling salesman by notorious by Wat, a notorious bandit, sets the ordeal in motion. The villagers attempt to bring Wat to justice themselves, only to fall victim to Wat's scheming just as soldiers are dispatched to the village to look for and arrest Wat. Wat, in the mean, is hiding out with char burners, themselves outlaws of a sort; and the meddling of Mother Cloot, a genuinely sociopathic witch, only causes the villagers more grief.
The story is told from the perspective of Mark, a young man without family, clearly searching for a male figure to emulate. Candidates include a soft-spoken, dangerously strong blacksmith, the local clergyman, Phillip the skeptic, Wat, and the thuggish soldiers that occupy the village. Mark struggles to make sense of his situation -- Wolfe makes much of Mark's intellectual ambition, quite notable coming from a peasant -- eventually reconciling the hard truths that he experiences first hand with the beliefs of the abbe, and the coal burners and even Mother Cloot.
With a character like Mark as the protagonist, it should come as no surprise that The Devil in a Forest reads like Wolfe attempting to write juvenile fiction. As such, it's very well done, if perhaps a bit too subtle for young readers and a bit too simple for the more sophisticated (I wouldn't describe myself as sophisticated, but I guessed the identity of a mysterious noble before he was even introduced). It's also a nice antidote to the poisonous sort of fiction that broadly portrays the pre-Christian Europeans cultures as pleasant, peaceful matriarchal peoples brutally oppressed by the no-good, patriarchal Medieval Church. The Church was not exactly all cuddles and sunshine, but may we all get over the romanticizing of people who ritually murdered young women?
On that selfish note, I'll simply say that The Devil in a Forest is very enjoyable historical fiction.