Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

How I found this book: Well, seeing the title of this post, you will probably go, Oh no, not another Wildwood review! That's the answer. A lot of people reviewed it. They said enough things about it that I wanted to read it.
I also got stuck with it for a while because my library temporarily closed shortly after I took it out.

(Picture of cover from the author's website)

Book in a nutshell (hard to do, since it's about an inch and a half thick):
Prue McKeel's an average Portland, Oregon, girl. She's good in school, loves her family, and stays away from the Impassible Wilderness - that great empty blot on all the maps of Portland, the forest that few ever enter. Then one fateful day, her little brother Mac is abducted in the park by a flock of crows (a murder of crows, as the book mildly calls it, using what I believe is the proper term for such a congregation). At the edge of a cliff and panting from a bike chase, Prue sees the black shapes disappearing down into the far-off pines of the Impassible Wilderness.
The next day, she sets off, with her suspicious classmate Curtis in pursuit... after all, if you were a rather geeky young boy (to borrow the colloquialism) with an interest in books, and you saw an acquaintance of yours disappearing off to potential adventure, wouldn't you pursue too?
Inside, the Impassible Wilderness turns out to be a divided land inhabited by talking animals and odd people. And it's a land of danger and misfortune, of instability, that the two children find themselves in. The coyote soldiers of the Dowager Governess are ruthless, but are the bureaucrats of the South Wood even worse? And while Prue's definitely out of patience with the latter, what's going to happen now that Curtis is allying with the former?
Not to mention, how is Prue ever going to find Mac?


I did like this book. I keep thinking that it's like Narnia... but it isn't... why do I say it is? Because of the children, I suppose, and the talking animals, and the comparison someone made between the Dowager Governess and the White Witch.

(For what it's worth, I agree with the comparison. Not to mention, in many ways Curtis seemed to be running a parallel of Edmund. Who would that make Prue? More like Peter than any other, really.
Seriously, though, there are too many parts of this story that have no Narnian counterpart for me to really present a comparison on a large scale. The bandits, for example!)

The scenery is beautifully described; this book is a subtle paen to a beloved Northwest Coast landscape... which I have visited before and love as well.
There's a very rich cast of characters, as might be expected.The Bandit King is part Aragorn and part.... I don't know, maybe part cowboy? He - and his band - are quite human, believable, flawed, and yet fun. South Wood's bureaucracy is portrayed dryly in all their chilling, impersonal straitness. Owl Rex and his eagle General are heroic figures, Enver the sparrow a nervous patriot. In fact, every character, even the bit parts like housemaids and bandits in prison, is lovingly crafted and handsomely portrayed.
The characters, in my opinion, are the crowning glory of this book, and make a far-fetched story feel as real as next door.

Both Prue and Curtis show realistic, well-written character development throughout the book, unlike many MG heroes and heroines these days. I find myself falling back onto the Narnia analogies: Prue becomes a leader like Peter, if not a warrior, and Curtis comes to an understanding, like Edmund, of what's really up. I love them both, really. I'd be proud to be friends with either of them.

Oh, there are oodles of things I love about Wildwood! But...

My main problem began around page 328. It would be a major spoiler to say exactly what it was, but... I was very displeased with the sudden influx of Magic into the story, especially in the way that it happened.
Highlight below for a spoiler that explains why I was displeased:
It is revealed that the Dowager Governess made a deal with Prue's then-childless parents: she would cause them to have a baby (exact words: "I'll make you with child") if they promised to give their second child (if there ever was one) to her. A sort of Rumplestiltskin bargain, except worse. Admittedly, since it was "a few weeks later" that a doctor stated Prue's mother was pregnant, one could take the notion that the "Wood Magic" merely removed whatever was keeping her from being pregnant - but really. Moreover, IF a character learned that she'd basically been concieved by the magic of a nasty villain, I think she WOULD be somewhat more shaken about it. So it's a plot problem as well as a very weird and unpleasant idea.
And again, when we meet the Mystics at the Council tree, suddenly everything takes a flip into Eastern-religion-style meditation and "Wood Magic." The Mystics take a major role in many things from there on out, and the trees and bushes begin to be partly sentient when meditated with, and... Wood Magic becomes a sort of deus ex machina.
I was disappointed. We had such a great set-up (what with the Bandit King and his lot, and the birds, and the talking animals and the bureaucrats and everything!) and now, suddenly, a needless Magic shows up - and of a sort that I found completely unsuited to a Portland, OR, setting and barely foreshadowed.
Wood Magic becomes a sort of deus ex machina, especially taking a role in the climax when (spoiler) Prue harnesses her powers and convinces tree branches to save her brother from the Dowager Governess's deadly plans.

Final thoughts:
Wildwood is a modern, MG epic that, unfortunately, seems to fall short in some plot features. If the magic had simply been left out and a few elements re-worked to compensate, I would have considered it stellar. I'm longing to talk about all the things I love about it, but at the core it was a bit of a disappointment. I'm sorry. I want to like it more. It's good now, but it could have been great.
If it had fallen short in more ways, I wouldn't have felt so bad about where it did. The trouble is, until around the 300-page mark, I was set up for an American Narnia! Then, instead of Aslan, we end up with meditation and one-with-the-earthness. Frankly, I would have preferred a lack of any spiritual elements at all. I wasn't expecting any, but then they showed up.

But if you're reading this review and scratching your head saying, "What's she griping about? Sounds great to me" then by all means go read Wildwood. You will love it.

Age rec: Well, I guess MG. 10 and up. And up, and up! But with a warning regarding all of the above. The battle scenes are not bloody, and there's no bad swearing that I recall, and definitely nothing of the adult-content variety. Really, except for the odd Wood Magic... but I've been over that already.

N. B. - the Impassible Wilderness seems to be based off a real park in Portland: Forest Park. Take a look on Mapquest - the thing's huge!

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