I had admired Carson Ellis‘s illustrations for Wildwood when browsing in the young adult section of the bookstore but had avoided purchasing in an effort to save money. I picked up the book a while back, however, when it was offered as a Google Play ebook for $2 and recently read it on my iPad.
Prue McKeel’s life is ordinary. At least until her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows. And then things get really weird.
You see, on every map of Portland, Oregon, there is a big splotch of green on the edge of the city labeled “I.W.” This stands for “Impassable Wilderness.” No one’s ever gone in—or at least returned to tell of it.
And this is where the crows take her brother.
So begins an adventure that will take Prue and her friend Curtis deep into the Impassable Wilderness. There they uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval, a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much bigger as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness.
A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.
I found it to be creative and imaginative despite having some very classic tropes (enchanted land cut off from “normal” civilization, a witch who allows a couple to have a child but at a steep price, children coming of age by participating in an adventure in a magical land, etc.).
But just because there are some familiar situations and themes doesn’t mean it is all recycled myth and fable. Or rather the way the author recycles and reworks the myths and fables works. It has an enjoyable mix of action and adventure with some unique characters and imaginative world building. The characters aren’t particularly deep but this is YA so that is not unusual. Besides the adventure, there is also a mix of political and environmental themes throughout.
Which is interesting given this first time author’s background:
Colin Meloy once wrote Ray Bradbury a letter, informing him that he “considered himself an author too.” He was ten. Since then, Colin has gone on to be the singer and songwriter for the band the Decemberists, where he channels all of his weird ideas into weird songs. With the Wildwood Chronicles, he is now channeling those ideas into novels.
Critics, however, had mixed reactions.
Without a good side to cheer for (disappointments and betrayals abound), the story lacks a strong emotional center, and its preoccupations with bureaucracy, protocol, and gray-shaded moral dilemmas, coupled with the book’s length, make this slow going. Ellis’s spot art, not all seen by PW, is characteristically crisp and formal, further lending the story a detached quality.
Compare that to School Library Journal:
Meloy deftly moves back and forth between Prue’s attempts to get help and Curtis’s adventures with the Governess, who is not what she initially seems, and uses the parallel stories to create a constant forward motion that will keep readers glued to the page. From its attention-grabbing opening to the final revelations of Prue’s true relationship to Wildwood, this book provides an emotional experience. Meloy has an immediately recognizable verbal style and creates a fully realized fantasy world in what is essentially a Portland child’s backyard. It is peopled with both animal and human characters with whom readers will identify and grow to love. Ellis’s illustrations perfectly capture the original world and contribute to the feel of an instant timeless classic. Further adventures in Wildwood cannot come quickly enough.
Funny how PW bemoans its lack of an “emotional center” while SLJ compliments its “emotional experience.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I think your interest will determine the impact of the story.
Kirkus also notes how this story stands out these days:
Gritty urban settings abound in contemporary fantasy (Holly Black, Neil Gaiman and China Miéville are exemplars). Faithfully recreating Portland’s wild Forest Park, Meloy gives his world a uniquely Pacific Northwest spin. Illustrations by Ellis, Meloy’s wife, bring forest and inhabitants to gently whimsical life.
A satisfying blend of fantasy, adventure story, eco-fable and political satire with broad appeal; especially recommended for preteen boys.
I agree. Contra PW, I didn’t find it to be particularly slow going or detached. So if you are looking for something a little different and need a new series to start Wildwood might be a good choice.