Balzer and Bray, 2011
Wildwood is the debut novel of Colin Meloy, better known as the singer/songwriter of The Decemberists. Aimed at older children Wildwood is similar in many ways to C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books but with several twists all its own. Prue McKeel lives in Portland where the maps mark an Impassable Wilderness at the edge of the city. This is fact Prue has come to live with, and mostly ignore, until the day the crows come a snatch her baby brother. With that act Prue sets forth into that Impassable Wilderness, called The Wildwood by its inhabitants, to find her baby brother and rescue him by any means necessary.
I should start by saying that I’m a bit outside the 8-12 demographic for Wildwood. I also feel that every time I start a review with such a caveat it doesn’t bode well for what follows. Truth of the matter I wasn’t a very big fan of this book. There are a number of issues I had with the title and while the book wasn’t, as a whole, bad it failed to live up to expectations. I suppose my disappointment might be expected as the kind of person that prefers the overtones of epic cheesiness of Dragonforce and Manowar over the more considered lyricism of Meloy’s own Decemberists. In truth my main problem with Wildwood is that it feels like far too much is borrowed from its predecessors.
In particular Wildwood’s fantastical otherland setting, talking animals, and evil queen bear far too much similarity to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maybe I was just hoping that Meloy would really go out on a limb with something truly unique, maybe it’s just the jaded post-modern fantasy reader in me, but the slavish dedication to form and format was a huge let down for me. Of course it didn’t help that I found the plot far too obscured by the supposed wonderment of Wildwood to really grip me. Indeed I often felt that the best stories in Wildwood were the ones that were told in passing; I was especially interested in reading about the Dowager Governess’ descent into madness and sorcery.
There are none-the-less moments when the wonder shines through. The prison beneath the coyote warren, the great tree at the heart of the south woods, the story about Prue’s parents, and the ruins scattered about the landscape during the final scenes being the big ones that stand out for me. The Rifftrax for the Chamber of Secrets has a running joke wherein the explanation behind many a magical device is simply “whimsy.” Wildwood has the same problem. The true moments of wonder are far too often eclipsed by what is to my ears unnecessary and overdrawn whimsy.
Ok, I’ll also admit that I’m not a huge fan of talking animals. Well, some talking animals. Talking animals that act like humans always kind of bugged me. Talking animals that act like animals, like Nighteyes from Assassin’s Apprentice or Oberon from Hounded, are far more my style. Coyotes dressed in soldier’s uniforms, using muskets strains even my admittedly thin credulity. Furthermore Wildwood continues the vilification of the genus Corvus. Poor crows and ravens always seem to draw the short straw when it comes to fantasy and Wildwood is certainly no help in improving their image.
When all is said and done Wildwood isn’t a bad book. It is a fairly traditional secondary world fantasy that moves at a rather sedate pace. When the action does kick up it is often violent and not for younger readers. I certainly wish it was more than was but it remains a strong debut from a new author. There is certainly room for improvement and Meloy drops enough hints in Wildwood to leave things open for further exploration. Disappointment asside I’ll be back next time around to see what is on offer.