Overall rating: 4/5
Genre: World War 2 Fiction
Read if you loved: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Content warnings: Antisemitism, Holocaust
I have been intrigued by the premise of this book yet hesitant to dive in because few things mess me up more than WW2 fiction. The Forest of Vanishing Stars follows Yona, a German-born woman who was kidnapped from her home at a young age and raised in the forests. When her captor passes away, she is met with the opportunity to make her own choices, but her isolation and consequent distrust of others is a hurdle she must overcome. As war breaks out, Yona comes across Jewish refugees searching for any means of escape and sanctuary, and while she may offer them the knowledge of the forest, there is much that they can offer her as well. Kristin Harmel breathes life into a truly unique heroine in this epic tale of survival, one that examines the often untold lives of those who plunged bravely into the unknown during one of darkest times in history.
This is a beautiful story, and is utterly unique compared to other books that I have read in the genre. The first paragraph hooked me in – its subtle fairytale callback (I got major Rapunzel vibes tbh) and intriguing premise told me this was going to be different, and that it certainly was. Yona is a fascinating perspective through which to explore this time, as she is less in tune with the realities of the Holocaust than readers. It is a lens brimming with innocent optimism, and its continual demise really drives home the horrors of the time for this book does not shy away from the many atrocities committed by Nazis. She is an unconventional protagonist in a way that I came to deeply admire – and I appreciated Harmel’s portrait of bravery living within those who do not demonstrate is as outwardly as we may be used to from these characters. The research that went into this book was also immediately apparent. There is so much detail around their survival methods, and it is absolutely fascinating to read.
As much as I loved Yona, that connection unfortunately did not extend to other characters in the book. I was trying so hard to believe in her relationships with some of the refugees, but I just couldn’t get there. There were so many of them. I get that that’s the point, but from a writing perspective, it became harder to carve out time with each one and really get to know any on a deeper level. The romance element suffered as a result as well, and I thought it was rushed and not developed the way it could have been. A lot of the dialogue got repetitive, and there was room to expand beyond that in order to engage readers to the connections within the text. Similarly, some of the other big plot points were almost glossed over, and I expected to see more from Yona in terms of her emotional response.
This is a very different type of WW2 historical fiction, so I would absolutely recommend it to anyone with an interest in that genre. Lovers of wilderness or nature survival stories will also enjoy this book because there is a significant emphasis on that. Thank you so much to the author, publisher, and Netgalley for the opportunity to review The Forest of Vanishing Stars in exchange for an honest review. It will be out on July 6th!