Thursday, November 9, 2023

Review: After the Forest - Exclusive Interview with author Kell Woods

Tor is my go to publisher for all things that go bump in the night and After the Forest ticks every box in the category. See why I absolutely loved this debut and read on for our chat.

ISBN-13: 978-1250852489
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: 10-03-2023
Length: 384pp
Source: Publisher for review
Buy It: Amazon/ B&N/ IndieBound



After the Forest is a dark and enchanting fantasy debut from Kell Woods that explores the repercussions of a childhood filled with magic and a young woman contending with the truth of “happily ever after.”

Ginger. Honey. Cinnamon. Flour.

Twenty years after the witch in the gingerbread house, Greta and Hans are struggling to get by. Their mother and stepmother are long dead, Hans is deeply in debt from gambling, and the countryside lies in ruin, its people starving in the aftermath of a brutal war.

Greta has a secret, though: the witch's grimoire, hidden away and whispering in Greta's ear for the past two decades, and the recipe inside that makes the best gingerbread you've ever tasted. As long as she can bake, Greta can keep her small family afloat.

But in a village full of superstition, Greta and her mysteriously addictive gingerbread, not to mention the rumors about her childhood misadventures, is a source of gossip and suspicion.

And now, dark magic is returning to the woods and Greta's magic―magic she is still trying to understand―may be the only thing that can save her. If it doesn't kill her first.

Read an excerpt:

1Forest Fair

Lindenfeld, the Black Forest

April 1650

Once upon a time, in a land where the winter snows fall thick and deep, a young viscountess sat sewing by her window. She was content. She carried a child, her first, and her husband was home again after long years away at war. As she sewed, the lady pricked her finger with her needle. Three bright drops of blood, a deep and startling crimson, fell upon the snow lining the ebony window ledge. The three together—black, white, red—were such a pretty sight that the viscountess smiled and whispered a little spell to herself. A daughter, she charmed. With hair as black as the ebony frame, lips as red as blood, and skin as fair as winter snow.

It is a delicate thing, the smoking of a wild-bee hive. There is a rhythm to it that cannot be rushed, a knowing: of the bees themselves, of flame and air, of the seasons. Greta Rosenthal had done it so often she had ceased to think upon it. She merely pressed a hand to the old beech tree in greeting—it was always wise to respect the elders of the forest—knotted her skirts, checked the satchel hanging at her shoulder and began to climb, her bare toes slipping easily into the notches cut into the smooth, silver-grey bark.

The hive nestled high in the tree’s heart. Greta propped herself between two branches and listened. The murmur of moving leaves, the ceaseless hum that signaled the bees’ contentedness. Satisfied, she drew a handful of green pine needles and an ember encased in river-damp moss from the satchel, breathed gentle life back into the latter, and lit the needles. The tang of burning pine filled her nose as she tucked the ember away and carefully, carefully, slid aside the board covering the hive’s entrance. Within, hundreds of bees coated swaths of golden comb in a warm, moving mass. Greta held the burning needles close. The spring air was warm and gentle and it was not long before the bees succumbed to the smoke’s sleepy spell. She drew her knife from her belt and cut away a slab of comb, tucking it into her satchel. She raised the knife to cut more, then faltered as a wave of sudden faintness washed over her. Greta fumbled for the tree, balance lost, breath hissing as the blade sliced her hand.

Three bright drops of blood, a deep and startling crimson, fell onto her apron.

She stared at it, removed from the pain, fascinated by the sight of the blood mingling with honey and the remnants of the morning’s baking—ginger and cinnamon, rose water and cloves—upon the pale linen. A bitter taste rose in her mouth. Her throat burned and her gaze blurred, until it was not an apron she was seeing, but a spreading of winter snow. Not her blood, but someone else’s. Three drops, and more.

Much, much more.

She removed the coif from her hair and used it to bind her hand, then forced herself to cut the honeycomb she had come for, clumsily thrusting the sticky chunks into the satchel along with her knife. For a heart’s beat her eyes cleared and she glimpsed a shadow through the trees below.

A shadow in the shape of a woman.

Greta gasped, lost her footing, and fell. The powdery crunch of snow beneath her, a surge of cold, the breath pushed from her lungs. Black branches above, and a winter-grey sky. Then nothing.

* * *

Spring-green leaves sharpened slowly against a blue sky. The scent of crushed larkspurs and the drowsy hum of the bees. Greta sat up gingerly, tested each of her limbs. Nothing damaged. Her satchel lay nearby. She slipped its strap over her shoulder and got to her feet, brushing the forest from her skirt.

When had the birds stopped singing? Greta had the distinct sensation that she was not alone. That someone, or something, was watching her. The air at the back of her neck turned to ice. Slow as winter, she turned.

The bear was enormous. Larger, surely, than any of God’s creatures had a right to be. The mound of muscle atop its sloping shoulders meant it reared tall as a common man. Its black fur gleamed. It gave a long, dusky breath, then, horribly, swung toward her, enormous paws strangely silent on the forest floor. Closer and closer it came, until Greta felt its warm breath and smelled its earthy, animal scent. Her heart crashed against her ribs. Her body screamed at her to run, to get down the mountain and behind the safety of her own door. But she remembered tales from the hunt. Wolves, boars …any predator will attack when its prey flees. It is instinct; a command surging in the blood, nameless and ancient.

To run is to die.

The bear nosed Greta’s sticky-sweet hand, licking the honey away. It was gentle as a lamb. And yet one strike was all it would take. A single blow with one huge paw to kill her where she stood.

Fear crushed her in its claws. The world filled with muscle and fur as the bear shunted yet closer. Would it devour her now or drag her, half dead, into the woods? Wisdom failed. She staggered backward, tripped, and sprawled on her rump in the ferns. Curled herself up and cowered against the earth. Words came to her, unbidden, tumbling from her mouth.

Leaf that’s green, earth and air,

Protect me, forest fair.”

She took a rasping breath.

“Darkness, devil, death and fear

Get thee gone from here.”

They were old words, and strange, springing forth from the depths of her memory like startled birds, but they were good. Her mother had taught them to her, of that much she was certain, though Greta could not say when. She said the words again, faster.

Leaf that’s green, earth and air,

Protect me, forest fair.

Darkness, devil, death and fear

Get thee gone from here.”

Again and again, each time waiting for the bear’s claws to rake her body, for its teeth to tear into the back of her neck. Hours passed, it seemed. Days, months, years. At last, when the flood of mother-prayer finally faded, Greta opened her eyes. She saw her own hand—a beetle crawling merrily across one knuckle—and strands of her hair, copper-bright. She raised her head. But for the lingering scent of pine smoke and the humming of the bees above, all was still. The bear was gone.

* * *

Greta did not wait for the beast’s return. Down the mountain she tore, bare feet slapping on pine needles and moss, satchel thudding against her hip. She scrabbled over a bank of twisted roots. Fell. Rose. Fell again. Thought fleetingly of her shoes, back at the base of the tree. There would be no returning for them now. With every step she heard the bear behind her, felt its hot breath between her shoulder blades. Vaulting over the mossy flank of a fallen oak she glimpsed—in the timeless, weightless eternity of flight—a child, tucked between wood and earth, its upturned eyes a violent blue. Then she was falling.

Copyright © 2023 by Kell Woods

My exclusive interview with Kell Woods:

Kell hi! Welcome to The Reading Frenzy.
I absolutely loved After the Woods, it was so inventive and hard to put down.
Will you tell my readers a bit about it please?

Thank you so much Debbie! After the Forest is a historical fantasy novel for adults that takes up the story of ‘Hansel & Gretel’ fifteen years after the fairy tale ended. It’s set in a real place and time – the Black Forest in Germany in the middle of the seventeenth century. Greta (Gretel) and Hans (Hansel) are both in their twenties and their nightmarish encounter with the witch in the forest seems like it happened long ago. But both siblings are still struggling. The brutal Thirty Years’ War has just come to an end and times are tough. Hans is selfish and reckless, gambling more than he earns, and Greta makes end meet by selling the famous – and deliciously addictive – gingerbread she bakes with the help of the witch’s grimoire. However, in a village full of superstition, Greta’s red hair and her past are sources of suspicion and gossip. When dark magic and wild beasts return to the woods, things get even worse. Greta finds that the past might not be as far behind her as she thought – and that she may have to fight for her life all over again.

Readers can expect history, fairytales, magic and witchery, as well as a M/F love story and a good dash of darkness.

I have to admit that these types of fairy tales gave me nightmares as a child but I love the retellings now.
What led you to write this particular novel?

I was really interested in writing a fairy tale retelling that not only took place in a real historical setting, but fleshed out the characters and made them more realistic.  ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is such a brutal and frightening tale, and I began to wonder what would have happened if the children had been real people. Abandonment, kidnapping, threat of death and cannibalism – this is intense stuff. Would they have really been able to continue with their lives after such an ordeal and live happily ever after? The more I thought about it, the more fascinated I became, and the more questions I had.

I loved Greta, she was so likeable and engaging yet so humble and strong at the same time.
How was she to write, did she follow your orders, or did she have her own ideas about her character’s creation?

I love her too. Those poor kids had such a horrible experience, and Greta was such an interesting character to me. She has this beautiful red hair and this strangeness about her that, when put together with her odd childhood, make her a bit of an outcast in the village. She’s brave and capable, but at the same time incredibly lonely. Because I was balancing history with fantasy I held back a bit with her at first, trying to make her behave as a young woman in 1650 might have. As drafts went by, I let her become stronger and more proactive. As my agent reminded me, I was writing fantasy as well as history, and Greta didn’t always have to be meek and mild.

Your bio says you’ve been writing fantasy for years yet After the Forest is your debut novel.
Can readers access your other works or are they sitting in a drawer somewhere?

I do actually have a bunch of half-finished novels sitting in a drawer. High fantasy, mostly, with too many characters! : ) I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl and I studied creative writing at university straight after high school. I kept writing through adulthood, squeezing it in around babies and studying librarianship and working. After the Forest is the first novel I finished, and the first I submitted to agents with the serious intention of finding a publisher. It took me quite a long time to write it. I probably should have chosen something less complicated!
I’m personally glad you didn’t 😉

Kell your novel is being published by three different publishers simultaneously in the US the UK and Australia and I love all three covers. And although I think the US cover best epitomizes the story, I think the UK cover is my favorite.
Do you have a favorite?

I really do love them all. The US cover is wild and bewitching, it really stands out. The UK cover is completely different, moody and dark and romantic. And the Australian/NZ cover is so luscious and enchanting.  The same designer – Andrew Davis – worked on both the US and the Australian/NZ covers which was really interesting to be a part of. When this all began I couldn’t really imagine a specific cover, but there were definitely elements I hoped for: bears or wolves or foxes, Greta’s red hair, and forest/botanical elements. So I’m pretty happy!

While going through your website I noticed you enjoyed a novel I also loved and reviewed on the blog Once There Were Wolves.
What types of novels do you read and how do you pick them?

Oh, I loved Once There Were Wolves! And Migrations, too. So good. I read broadly, all kinds of different things – historical fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller (I love a good domestic noir) biography, non-fiction, literary, general fiction... I’m into setting. I like books set in beautiful, wild places. I would have chosen Once There Were Wolves because of its setting, I think.

I bet this would be amazing in audio.
a. Have you heard it performed?
b. Is the narrator the same for all the different publishers?
c. Did you have any involvement in the choice of narrators?

Yes – I've listened to Esther Wane’s performance and she’s wonderful. Esther’s version is the version used by all three publishers. I had quite a lot of involvement with the choice of narrator, which was very surprising and fun. I chose Esther because of the quality and rhythm of her voice – she sounded most like the voice I hear in my own head when I read After the Forest.

Kell thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions.
Will you be touring in the US for this book?

Thank you so much for having me at the Reading Frenzy, Debbie! I don’t have any plans to come to the US at this stage, but I would love! Maybe one day...  : )


My Review:

After the Forest
Kell Woods 

Kell Woods debut, After the Forest, is brilliant, a dark and gripping mix of an adult Fairy Tale, hard fantasy and a bit of a love story that takes readers back to the Black Forest to reconnect with Hans and Greta long after their escape from the witch, the gingerbread house and rescue by the huntsman and follows them into their troubled adulthood.

With their mother long dead and their father dying soon after their safe return home Hans and Greta grow up relying only on each other and a few kindly neighbors. Nevertheless, Hans develops a gambling addiction and Greta keeps them out of the poorhouse with her enchanted gingerbread baked from the recipe in the witch’s cookbook that Greta took after the witch’s demise. But when bloody, butchered bodies are discovered in the forest and wolves and bears are seen roaming the woods the superstitious townspeople looking for a scapegoat only have to look as far as Greta and her gingerbread. But it’s not Greta the town has to worry about but the pure evil that shows up on their doorstep.

There is so much to love about this novel, the author’s superb and scary storytelling, the lyric-like narrative, a refreshing, engaging fairy tale retelling and a cast of fantastical characters giving readers a story that will live on in their minds long after The End. The star of the show is definitely Greta, she’s a real stand-out, strong, honorable, fallible and kind who is willing to sacrifice all to protect those she loves. Readers will encounter other stand-out characters too both good and evil both human and not.  Fans of fairy tale retellings, hard fantasy and novels by Paula Brackston and Rachel Caine will have a hard time putting this down and will be anxiously wondering what this amazing debut author will offer up next.

About the author:
Kell Woods is an Australian historical fantasy author. She lives near the sea with her husband, two sons, and the most beautiful black cat in the realm.

Kell studied English literature, creative writing and librarianship, so she could always be surrounded by stories. She has worked in libraries for the past twelve years, all the while writing about made-up (and not so made-up) places, people and things you might remember from the fairy tales you read as a child.
Her debut novel AFTER THE FOREST will be published simultaneously by Tor Books (US) Titan Books (UK) and Harper Voyager (AU/NZ) in October 2023, with a second, untitled novel coming in late 2024.

Kell is represented by Julie Crisp at Julie Crisp Literary Agency.


  1. Oh I like this. What happens after the witch is dead.
    Also interesting with the era since Germany was hit hard in the 30 year war

  2. Well, well, well, sounds like she hit on a good one. I love that its a fairytale sequel.

  3. I love the beautiful graphics. Interesting premise.

    Anne - Books of My Heart