Beyond the Red Forest


Loved it! 😍

After her father makes a cruel proposal, a princess and her friends go on a high-risk mission to retrieve energy cells and save their world.

If you're searching for a strong female lead, look no further than Zera from Alex Hayes' novel Beyond the Red Forest; when her bodyguard Wills feels sorry for her, Zera replies, "Take the pity with you. I need your strength, not your sympathy." Love it.

However, Zera is in a truly awful situation. She's a princess, living in the Upper Domiciles of the City of Reflections--a kingdom enclosed inside a biosphere, because the outside world is poisoned. The City of Reflections is an oppressive society, literally stratified by height. The Lower Domiciles make up the city's base and contain the majority of its residents, who suffer in poverty from inefficient food rations and draconian population control regulations, while the middle and upper classes above them exist in relative ease. Zera frequently sneaks out to the Lower Domiciles, and she knows many of the residents--including a talented young man named Mikhail, who tutors her in violin.

In terms of her royal duties, though, Zera is nothing more than an object. She's being trained (by a relentless self-defense master named Nikolai) for a hazardous mission to save the kingdom. The City of Reflections is running out of fuel, so Zera must travel through the poisoned outer world to a remote tower where essential energy cells are located. Why Zera? Because the tower has DNA locks, so Zera's the only "biological key" who can open them. And everyone else who's attempted this journey hasn't returned.

But this isn't even the worst part, which is Zera's father, the ruthless king of the City of Reflections. He gives Zera a callous ultimatum: if she doesn't retrieve the energy cells by her twenty-first birthday, he'll shut down life support to the Lower Domiciles to ensure safety for everyone else. He's willing to murder 80% of the population, including many of Zera's friends, which leaves the princess no choice in the matter. Zera will have more help than those who tried previously--a team including Wills, Nikolai, and her best friend Clara. But the mission begins in total chaos, and the group soon realizes that what they've been told about the outside world isn't the complete truth. Zera and her friends will encounter weaponized robots, murderous bounty hunters, and treasonous city officials. Should they follow their mission or not, and who can be trusted--even within their own group?

Beyond the Red Forest is a delightfully nuanced adventure story with tons of complicated characters and crucial themes about protecting animals and the environment. Author Alex Hayes also makes some excellent narrative choices that subvert typical fantasy genre tropes: Zera and her female friends openly criticize the lone white male hero narrative, which is what caused earlier mission attempts to fail. Instead of going alone, Zera knows that she'll fare better with a group's backing and protection. Additionally, Zera is dark-skinned--the result of an ancestral marriage arrangement in the past--and faces prejudice, particularly from her father (who blatantly prefers his more white-passing, blond-haired, four-year-old son). Zera's skin is even artificially lightened in media presentations; the royal family claims this is to help hide her identity from the public, but it's obvious that the real reason is racism. And although Zera can sometimes be cast as overly naive and innocent when it comes to love and sex, many of the book's female characters are wonderfully confident about their eroticism and physical needs.

Beyond the Red Forest is Book One of The Firebird's Gift Series, and the cliffhanger ending means that we're definitely getting a sequel. For those who don't like to wait, you're in luck: Alex Hayes is also the author of The Chameleon Effect Series.

Reviewed by

Michelle Hogmire is a West Virginian writer with an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. She's the co-founder of the Appalachian publication The Haint. Her work has been featured in Rampant Magazine, BOMB, KGB Bar Lit Mag, & Columbia Journal. She's currently finishing her first book in Chicago.


About the author

Alex Hayes writes sci-fi/fantasy, dystopian, romance and speculative fiction for adult, new adult and young adult readers. She is a vegetarian who believes in love and not war, and equality and compassion for all. view profile

Published on July 16, 2020

100000 words

Contains mild explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Dystopian

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