I read a daily comic called Unshelved. It’s all about libraries and the crazy stuff that happens in them. As a librarian, I find it funny mainly because I’m thinking the whole time “oh goodness, that just happened to me a few days ago”. Every Friday, they have a handful of reviews of books for all different ages, from all different genres. It’s a great place to find things to read. A few weeks ago, one of the reviews was for Wildwood by Carson Meloy.
It sounded interesting: Prue McKeel lives in Portland. She’s twelve and has a baby brother, Mac. Prue and Mac are at the playground one day when Mac is taken by a flock (or murder) of crows. Prue follows them as far as the edges of the city but stops when she sees them taking Mac into the Impassable Wilderness, a large forest right outside of Portland that Prue has always been told is empty of people. She’s about to discover how wrong that is.
I love crows (they are some of the most intelligent creatures out there) and I love books about forests/wilderness and discovery/surviving in the forest/wilderness. Also, once I got the book I was a bit in love with the beautiful illustrations by Carson Ellis (who happens to be Colin Meloy’s wife, himself the lead singer of the band The Decemberists). So I was pretty excited to start reading this book.
But that excitement didn’t last long. I’m not really sure what it was but something about the book? the writing? the story? just turned me off of it completely. It could have been that Prue was such a hipster in training. Ugh. After Mac is taken, Prue manages to sneak into the Impassable Wilderness to try and rescue her brother. A classmate, Curtis, tags along. They run into coyote soldiers early on, are separated to follow their own individual adventures and discover in the process much about themselves and the whole world that exists in the Impassable Wilderness (where, of course, Prue and Curtis are labeled as Outsiders).
A lot of the problems with this book were the characters. One of the leaders is a weak, ineffective and corrupt bureaucrat. The villain of the story is a deposed former leader (a woman who fell into practicing Dark Arts after her son died) who is now psychotic and willing to do anything to get her revenge after being banished. A mystic helps Prue towards the end of the book and she is elderly, frail, and ethereal. She also has silver hair and smells like lavender. There are numerous characters who find their courage in helping Prue and there are characters that turn to good thanks to Curtis. I don’t know, I just felt like I had seen these characters in every fantasy book I’ve read before. There was nothing particularly original about any of it. Also, there are bandits that live in the forest, very much like Robin Hood and his merry men, and the Bandit King is almost always described as sweaty, covered in perspiration, dirty, etc. Gross. I realize he lives in a forest but he couldn’t find a creek anywhere? The man must have been absolutely disgusting to be around.
Another thing that bothered me was the tone. There would be attempts at humor followed by scenes that bordered on brutal. It just seemed to jar unpleasantly with the twee illustrations from Ellis and seemed completely inappropriate for a childrens’ book. I’m ok with darkness in kids’ stories but this was slightly ridiculous.
This book was about 500 pages, which is really long for a children’s book and I’m fairly certain it could have been much shorter. I kept thinking it was close to wrapping up but then realizing there was still 200, 100, 50 pages left. There were also some unanswered questions, specifically the “half-breed” status that is given to Prue and to Curtis by the citizens of Wildwood. Prue’s designation is kind of explained (but very unsatisfactorily in my opinion) but Curtis’ never is. However, the book is explicitly called Book I of the Wildwood Chronicles, so maybe those questions will be answered in future books. I, for one, am not particularly interested in having to read through another 500+ pages to find out.