Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Mythago Wood

Another day, another World Fantasy Award winner. Yup, that's just how I do.

 Up this time is Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.

Am I a impulsive book buyer?  *sigh* Um, yes, at times, but it usually works out in my favor.  There are definitely times when I'll see a book sitting there at the used book store, and though it isn't on my "books to read radar" I'll snag it because I've heard good things about it, and the fact that it has "found me" rather than me finding it, I figure that fate has somehow placed the two of us together for a reason. And really, who am I to give fate the cold shoulder?

It was under such fateful circumstances that Mythago Wood came to be in my possession.  At the time I was reading and loving The Prestige and since each title had won the World Fantasy Award, I thought, what the hell, let's give this one a whirl.  So I did.

For years, the Huxley family has lived on the edge of Ryhope Wood, a dense stretch of ancient British forest.  For years, George Huxley studied the forest, an undertaking that estranged him from his family and possibly drove him mad.  Now, after his death, his son Christian has taken up the old man's research and his younger brother, Steven has returned home from the war to help take care of the house and land.  Together the two young men discover that the forest is much more than it appears; The Ryhope Wood is a primeval place, where people, legends and tribes from different historical eras live and co-exist, brought to life by myth.  What appears to be just your typical old-growth forest is actually a place that is physically larger once inside that it appears from the outside, and is host to mythagos; savage men, women and beasts.

The forest has a dark power. The power that pulled down their father, George, and now is pulling Christian into it's grasp.  Unwittingly, Steven falls in love with Guiwenneth, one of the mythagos, just like his father and brother have before him.  When she is captured, Steven must quest to the center of the wood to save her, while confronting the dangers of the dark forest.

Mythago Wood got off to a slow start, taking its time to set up the characters, and the forest, which in many ways is a character itself.  The slow start was a bit frustrating because I knew that eventually, the book had to go and explore the forest, which is the most interesting thing, but it took a while to actually get to that point.  Things do pick up a bit once the quest through the forest begins, but overall, the pacing is a bit on the slow side here.

Though the primary character, Steven is decently developed, albeit a bit uninteresting as far as lead characters go, he serves the story well by being a great conduit for the reader to experience the woods and the mythagos through.  Steven is every bit as perplexed, overwhelmed, and unprepared for the mysteries of the forest as I would be, so in that sense, his experiences, reactions, and emotions come across as instantly understandable and real.  I thought this quality was a nice touch and made me feel like I was experiencing the dread, and craziness that was the Ryhope Wood.

The forest itself was basically a character and in my mind, the star of the show.  I wanted to know more about it, I wanted to explore it, and learn the secrets of the wood.  Holdstock did a great job by creating a mysterious and creepy setting and then bringing it life on the page.  I really felt like all of my senses were engaged, and operating at full capacity as Steven journeyed through the forest where unknown dangers, and mysteries lurked.  This made for a memorable reading experience.

My one gripe, aside from the slow pacing, was that the one female character, Guiwenneth, was poorly developed.  She came across to me as more of a pretty object for the men to fall in love with than an actual character.  Some of this was compacted by the fact that for much of the novel she couldn't speak modern English, so she didn't have much dialog, but aside from apparently being handy with a knife, a fact that was told, but never shown, she didn't have a lot going on.  The lack of character development with Guiwenneth made it harder for me to believe that George, Christian, and Steven would all fall madly in love with her, which ended up taking away from the story since Steven's love for Guiwenneth is what drove him into the forest in the first place.

Overall this was a solid fantasy novel, but far from my favorite.  Holdstock is a crafty writer, and created a great setting that was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, but the pacing and character development left a bit to be desired for my tastes.  I will say that Mythago Wood is a unique book in the fantasy genre.  I've certainly never come across anything like it.  I would recommend this one if you are looking for something different, but still want to stay in the fantasy genre.  For me, score this one as a push for impulse buying.

Grade: C+

9 comments:

Kathryn said...

Oddly enough, I picked this up when I traded in a number of books.

I was on the fence about reading it, but for now I think I might just leave it on my shelf and focus on some others. The comments about the female character put me off a little :p

Ryan said...

Kathryn- it was quite off putting. She was the only female in the book, and there was too much "damsel in distress" about her. Not really what I look for in stories these days.

Felix said...

I haven't read the book, but whether you have to criticise the female character might depend on whether it fits into a kind of "folk tale" tradition that the book is based on.

Felix said...

I want to add, the same goes for the other characters and pacing. It might all be reasonably embedded in a certain style of "music" in individual storytelling.
I have once read a short story by the author.

Danielle said...

I can definitely appreciate the slow pacing, but there is something about this book that I find utterly compelling. I go back to it about every 2 years. The sequel, Lavondyss, continues the story, but it's Mythago Wood that really haunts me.

Ryan said...

@Felix- Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

You can find connections to folk motifs in every fantasy story out there, but I don't think modern writers should be beholden to old oral traditions. Modern writers certainly wouldn't make their bad guys as stupid or easily tricked as say the witch in Hansel and Gretal, so I also don't think female characters should have to be damsels in distress, only to be rescued by "knights in shining armor" like many of those old oral folk traditions either. I prefer female and male characters to be realistic, not caricatures of ancient oral texts.

Ryan said...

@Danielle- Thanks for sharing your thoughts, especially when they differ from my own!

I sometimes fear I might be a product of my generation in terms of pacing, wanting everything NOW, but in the case of Mythago Wood, I really wanted to explore the forest and the book took it's time getting there. Like you said, it is extremely compelling and haunting; For my money the best part of this novel.

Felix said...

"You can find connections to folk motifs in every fantasy story out there, but I don't think modern writers should be beholden to old oral traditions. Modern writers certainly wouldn't make their bad guys as stupid or easily tricked as say the witch in Hansel and Gretal, so I also don't think female characters should have to be damsels in distress, only to be rescued by "knights in shining armor" like many of those old oral folk traditions either. I prefer female and male characters to be realistic, not caricatures of ancient oral texts."

That's not the point. I mean those stories can have a certain flavour that might get lost with more modern, rational or "realistic" perspective. Of course it shouldn't be completely ridiculous or stupid, but what one might perceive as "prejuidiced" might simply be an innocent, poetic trope that seems authentic or fitting in context. Or they might not be entirely innocent yet with a historical, cultural understanding provide further depth.
It is simply part of the style where more "subversive", self-aware or "complex" elements might not create the same atmosphere.

I'm aware that the concept of fantasy is defined by folkloristic backgrounds, but it can be evoked in different ways and degrees of authenticity. You cannot apply the same standards to, say, Joe Abercrombie and Peter S. Beagle.

Or what is the difference in Neil Gaiman using such a trope and applying a certain tongue-in-cheek twist to it? It's certainly more political correct now, but assuming we're all reasonable persons who support gender equality and so on, might we not go back to the old sources and find a certain "flair" in them that gets lost in an modern, ironic reworking. Mind you, I don't mean that superficial archetypes are a requirement or "priority" fro such a text, they might simply not be so distracting in the overall goal of a certain atmosphere.

It's either way more complex or way more simple, anyway, I don't seem to be able to find the right words right now. I might need to look into the work to give a better explanation, or in the end find myself agreeing with you.

Ryan said...

@Felix- Thanks for your epic response, its greatly appreciated.

To clear things up, I just want to point out that I don't intend to paint Holdstock as prejudiced or sexist, I have no right to do that, nor do I think that.

For me, I like to read well developed, fleshed out characters, and for my money Guiwenneth was not well developed. Having read your response, I can see how her characterization could be more of a story or plot element rather than as a functional character, but still, I'm gonna stick to my guns and say that I needed there to be more to the character for me to enjoy the story to a greater degree.

Your response has added to my reading experience though so thanks again!