by Leigh Bardugo
Illustrated by Dani Prendergast
“I would burn a thousand villages, sacrifice a thousand lives to keep you safe.”
Eryk has lived his life on the run, with his mother Lena as his only companion. Eryk and Lena share a secret, a unique power that divides them even from the other Grisha who can summon or manipulate the elements. Eryk has been taught to trust no one, to don a new name and a new backstory at a moment’s notice, but he longs for a place of safety to call home, for other people who he can trust and confide in. When Eryk and Lena decide to winter in a Grisha camp on the border of Ravka and Fjerda he meets Sylvi and Annika and begins to harbour a tiny hope of a home. But when the truth comes out, the consequences of his secret will have a terrible price.
Others have described Demon in the Wood as the Darkling’s villain origin story, but really it is more like a single step along that path. In this case, it is the story of how a boy temporarily going by the pseudonym Eryk discovers the depths Grisha will sink to in order to protect themselves in a world that believes the only good witch is a dead witch. Rather than turning him against his own people, it drives him to imagine a world where Grisha have an exalted place, and their power raises them up rather than making them a target of persecution. But the methods he is learning as he begins the pursuit of that agenda hint at the dictator he will one day become.
The Darkling’s mother, going by the name of Lena for the moment, is perhaps the more interesting of the two characters. Lena recognizes that their power is unusual, even among Grisha, and tries to teach her son to protect himself from those who would use him, whether mundane or magical. However, the lengths to which she is willing to go to protect her son, and the value she teaches him to place on his own life above the lives of others will have dark echoes down the years. Both characters have understandable motivations, but they have many years yet to be twisted and warped before we encounter the characters we know from Shadow and Bone as Baghra and the Darkling.
Demon in the Wood is developed from a short story that was originally published in 2014 as a bonus item alongside the release of the third Grishaverse book, Ruin and Rising. Like The Language of Thorns and The Lives of the Saints, this is a beautiful edition for fans of Bardugo’s work, but not an essential addition to the main story. Dani Prendergast joins Daniel J. Zollinger and Sara Kipin among the ranks of artists that have done striking work to bring Bardugo’s world alive through their illustrations. Her colours and lines are particularly evocative at depicting Grisha powers in action, from shadow to water and especially ice.