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Literature / Into the Heartless Wood

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Into the Heartless Wood is a 2021 fantasy novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer.

The forest is a dangerous place, where siren song lures men and women to their deaths. For centuries, a witch has harvested souls to feed the heartless tree, using its power to grow her domain.

When Owen Merrick is lured into the witch's wood, one of her tree-siren daughters, Seren, saves his life instead of ending it. Every night, he climbs over the garden wall to see her, and every night her longing to become human deepens. But a shift in the stars foretells a dangerous curse, and Seren's quest to become human will lead them into an ancient war raging between the witch and the king who is trying to stop her.

This book includes examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: The Gwydden towards her sons and daughters. She created them solely to serve as tools for killing, and if they don't conform to that, she's only too willing to torture them or force them to do so.
  • Anger Born of Worry: Calon yells at Owen and locks him in his room when he finds out he's been venturing out into the woods, but it's clear this is due to fear that he may lose him to the Gwydden as he lost his wife.
  • Attack on the Heart: The Gwydden kills Elynion by thrusting a sharpened tree branch through his heart.
  • Become a Real Boy: Seren seeks to become human after abandoning her mother and sisters. She gets her wish at the end.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: The Gwydden and King Elynion, aka the Soul Eater.
  • Big Sister Bully: Seren's older sisters regularly torment her, especially when she starts showing "weakness" by becoming empathetic towards humans.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Owen's parents are dead, Breindal City is destroyed, and Seren sacrifices herself to save Owen. However, Elynion has been vanquished and the Gwydden's curse is lifted, allowing her to pass on peacefully. And ultimately, Seren is resurrected as a human and reunited with Owen.
  • Compelling Voice: The tree sirens lure their victims into the wood through their song.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: It's home to the Gwydden and her monstrous daughters, and they kill anyone who strays too close.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Seren finally gets her wish to become human and reunites with Owen in the epilogue.
  • Empire with a Dark Secret: The kingdom of Tarian is run by an immortal sorcerer who is responsible for the creation of the Gwydden due to him devouring her soul.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: The tree siren with roses in her hair is the only one who shows a degree of care towards Seren. She tells her to run away rather than kill her and even tells the Gwydden she perished so that their mother won't kill her. When the Gwydden recaptures Seren and the other tree sirens torment her, the one with roses shows pity and even considers siding with her for a moment, though her loyalty to her mother ultimately prevents it.
  • Evil All Along: King Elynion is seemingly only trying to stop the Gwydden's rampage. In reality, he's the cause of her evil by devouring her soul centuries in the past, and is only trying to vanquish her to secure his own power and remove any obstacles in his path for world domination.
  • Evil Versus Evil: The Gwydden vs King Elynion. The Gwydden is a soul-stealing witch out to engulf the world in her kingdom of birch and exterminate humanity, while Elynion is the man who cursed her to be that way, and himself plans to conquer the world once he's vanquished her.
  • Evil Matriarch: The Gwydden towards her children, the Pine Princes and the tree sirens. Heaven help them if they try to become more than the monsters she created them to be, as she'll brutalize them and psychologically torture them for straying out of line.
  • The Fair Folk: The Gwydden and her daughters are forest witches who murder humans and harvest their souls. The Gwydden herself used to be a forest nymph before having her soul taken by Elynion.
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: Owen does this with Seren when the Gwydden controls her body and forces her to fight him. It ends with Seren tearing her heart out to keep from killing him.
  • Immortality Immorality: King Elynion devoured the Enaid's soul to gain immortality, resulting in her transformation into the monstrous Gwydden. Even despite this, Elynion is more concerned with maintaining his own power over the welfare of his kingdom and the rest of the world.
  • Interspecies Romance:
    • Owen, a human, with Seren, a tree siren.
    • Elynion, a human, with Enaid, aka the Gwydden, a forest nymph.
  • Kill All Humans: The Gwydden's ultimate goal.
  • Love Redeems: Seren's newfound love for Owen is what convinces her to break away from her mother's control and strive to become more than a monster.
  • Missing Mom: Owen and Awela's mother was taken by the tree sirens. He later discovers she had her soul removed and was bound to the heartless tree to channel its power, with her dying just as he reunites with her. Worse still, it was Seren who personally took her.
  • Never Given a Name: The tree sirens weren't given names by their mother, Seren only receiving her name from Owen.
  • Not Worth Killing: The tree siren with roses in her hair claims this to be her reason for sparing Seren for her disobedience.
  • People Puppets: Seren becomes one courtesy of the Gwydden, being forced against her will to battle Owen.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The Gwydden channels the heartless tree's power by habitually ensnaring those with powerful souls and binding them to the tree, as was the fate of Owen's mother.
  • Our Sirens Are Different: The tree sirens. They lure men, women and children into the forest with their singing before killing them and taking their souls.
  • Really Royalty Reveal: Rheinallt, seemingly a random recruit in Tarian's army, is actually a prince from Gwaine sent to spy on Tarian to verify if the threat of the wood was true.
  • Redemption Earns Life: Seren, the only tree siren to turn good, is resurrected as a human while her monstrous siblings all fade away.
  • Rescue Romance: Owen first encounters Seren when she spares him during her train massacre, but their romance truly begins when she saves him and his sister from one of her sisters.
  • Science Wizard: Elynion possesses great magical powers, but he also utilizes tech devices, such as with his soul-extracting machine.
  • Sorcerous Overlord: King Elynion possesses immortality and great magical power as a result of devouring the Gwydden's soul.
  • Soul Eating: King Elynion devoured the Gwydden's soul centuries prior, earning him the moniker of the Soul Eater among the creatures of the wood.
  • The Soulless: The tree sirens were born with a heart, but not a soul, a source of angst for Seren. The Gwydden herself used to have a soul before it was taken by Elynion.
  • Take Over the World: Both the Gwydden and King Elynion have this in mind.
  • Those Two Guys: Baines and Rheinallt, the two Tarian soldiers Owen befriends upon joining the army. Rheinallt is later revealed to be a royal from a neighboring kingdom disguised as a soldier.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: The Gwydden was once a forest nymph named Enaid who fell in love with a prince, only for him to carve out her soul, transforming her into a vengeful witch out to destroy all of humanity in retribution.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: King Elynion is viewed as a hero to all of Tarian due to his efforts to stop the Gwydden, when in reality he's the one responsible for the Gwydden turning evil in the first place.
  • White Sheep: Seren strives to be more than the monster her mother created her to be and rejects her mother and sisters' efforts to turn her back to their way.
  • Wicked Witch: The Gwydden is a witch queen who seeks to wipe out all of humanity. She used to be a forest nymph before having her soul stolen by Elynion.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: The Gwydden was once a forest nymph named Enaid who fell in love with a human prince until he carved out her soul, the betrayal twisting her into a monstrous witch out for vengeance against both the one who stole her soul, and all of humanity.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • The Gwydden and her daughters have no qualms killing children and harvesting their souls.
    • King Elynion planned on devouring two-year-old Awela's soul, and the device he intended to use to extract said soul was anything but painless.
  • You Killed My Father:
    • Owen learns that Seren was the tree siren who gave his mother to the Gwydden to be enslaved to the heartless tree, which ultimately killed her. When he realizes this, he turns on Seren, threatening to kill her if he sees her again.
    • Owen later swears vengeance against Elynion after his experiments on his father end up killing him. However, Elynion proves far too powerful for him.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Seren is the youngest of the Gwydden's tree siren daughters, and is the only one to reject her mother's genocidal ambitions. Thus, while the other tree sirens end up fading away, Seren is reborn as a human.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!:
    • The Gwydden and her daughters harvest the souls of their victims to feed the heartless tree and expand their domain.
    • This is what Elynion intended to do to Awela, and later, Owen. Fortunately, Seren takes the former to safety, and Owen's mother magically shielded the latter's soul from being taken.