Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson-Crouch

I follow Gabby Hutchinson-Crouch on Twitter, where she is both lovely and funny, so was pleased to pick up Darkwood, the first in her trilogy of comic fantasy adventures set in a world of fairy tales. I believe the books would be stocked in the children's and young adult section in your local bookshop, but as an adult reader I think they'd work for all ages: they're something a whole family could easily enjoy together. (In fact, Darkwood is crying out for an audiobook that a family could listen to during a long journey or on holiday - sort it out, Gabby's publisher.)

Hansel and Gretel Mudd are young teenage twins living in Myrsina, a land where magical creatures are plentiful but largely segregated from ordinary humans and confined to the Darkwood. Myrsina is ruled by the Huntsmen, a group of masked enforcers with a strongly authoritarian bent and strict rules on gender roles - kind of a cross between the Taliban, the Gestapo and the hard-right of the Tory party. The Huntsmen are intent on stamping out witchcraft, so anyone with magical powers has little option but to conceal them or flee to the Darkwood. They also, however, object to girls doing maths, which means that Gretel - not a witch, but a gifted engineer - soon attracts their attention and is forced to make a rapid escape.

It's once in the Darkwood that she meets a mismatched band of magical people, most of them entertainingly familiar. There's Buttercup, whose sole power is turning objects into baked goods, and Snow, a formidable knight who has assumed the lifestyle of the flea-ridden dwarves who have adopted her as their own. There's Jack, a young thief whose ability to grow beanstalks has caused no end of trouble. There's also Trevor, a dapper talking spider who believes himself a master of disguise. While they're initially uncertain about Gretel's lack of magical powers, they quickly recognise her talent for strategy and invention, and when it looks like an all-out war is going to break out between the Darkwood and the Huntsmen with the people of Nearby Village caught in the middle, it's up to them to try and stop it. Meanwhile, back in the village, Gretel's brother Hansel has some secrets of his own.

There are lots of little subversions of tradition, particularly where the tradition is a sexist one, and there are lots of allegorical nods to present-day social and political issues, including the demonising of particular groups by those in power. For instance, the villagers in Nearby have been led to believe by the Huntsmen that the Darkwood is a lawless no-go area full of sub-human creatures intent on causing them harm, when of course the real enemy is the Huntsmen themselves, pitting Nearby and the Darkwood against each other in order to suppress them both. 

Darkwood has many, many jokes that draw from fairy tale tropes, but also plenty inspired by ordinary life - the Darkwood's terror of the Bin Men, for instance, for whom offerings must be left on specific days when they rampage voraciously through the forest. It really is properly funny, and although the jokes, the language and the plot are completely appropriate for a younger readership, it's never too twee for adults. There's enough peril to keep you turning the pages but like all fairy tales, you know there's always a good chance of a nice happy ending. 

There's a very Pratchetty kind of vibe to this book, and not just because it's smartly-executed comic fantasy: also like Pratchett's novels, it has a genuine warmth and kindness to it that simply adds to the magic. If it's possible for a book to be welcoming, that's Darkwood to a tee.