Completed 3/18/2023, Reviewed 3/18/2023
I liked this book despite its misogynistic sensibility. It was really good while it stayed a sausage fest and lost momentum when it brought in a female character whose main purpose seemed to be to make men fall in love with her. Granted, the book was published in 1984 and takes place after WWII, but it still could have been much more enlightened in its treatment of woman. Otherwise, the basic premise of the book is very original and the prose is terrific. This book won the 1984 British Sci Fi Award and the 1985 World Fantasy Award.
Steve Huxley comes home from the war to find his brother Christian a wraith. He has become obsessed with the forest near their house that their father was obsessed with. After Christian disappears, Steve tries to figure out the mystery of the ancient wood. It seems to generate archetypal creatures and beings partly generated by mind of the observer and partly by the history and folklore of the area. Christian comes back from the wood and has become powerful, burly, and aggressive. He is in search of the woman from the wood with whom he fell in love. He goes back into the wood and again disappears. This time, the woman of the wood shows up for Steve and the two fall in love. This of course causes conflict between the brothers, though it feeds into a folk tale of the murderous Outsider and the Kinsman who must kill him.
As noted above, I really liked the beginning of the book. It was quite a mystery, this wooded area being only a few square miles in size, but people get lost in it for long periods of time. It is not necessarily of the faerie folk, but it has that time dilation. Inside the wood, there are extinct animals like wild giant boars and bears. There’s a Robin Hood like person and various other peoples from cultures that lived in this area. It’s an enigmatic area that seems to drive mad the people trying to explore it.
The story loses its appeal when Guiwenneth shows up. She’s like a warrior princess, so it takes a while before she and Steve hit it off, but of course they do. I found the whole courting ritual to be rather tedious. Then Christian returns, steals Guiwenneth from Steve, and leaves him for dead. I would have rather seen more exploration of the wood, or perhaps a less stereotypical trope.
One aspect I did like was the appearance of a royal air force pilot who Steve spots trying to fly over the woods. Harry Keeton is a charming guy with his own mystery. He came across a similar wooded area in Belgium during the war. Harry, Steve and Guiwenneth become good friends. When Christian steals Guiwenneth, Harry accompanies Steve on his journey into the wood to find her. Harry offers a different perspective and occasional breaks in the tension with humor and kindness.
I reluctantly give this book four stars out of five. If I read it when it first came out, I would have had no qualms about the rating. But reading it forty years later, the book drips with misogyny. The appearance of Guiwenneth was a distraction from the more interesting primeval forest mystery. And she goes from being a force to be reconned with to a victim way too quickly. If I remember correctly, there was only two other female characters noted, one was a “spinster” from the house of the owners of the land that the Huxleys live on. She was only in her twenties and was already bitter. The other was a thirteen-year-old naked girl covered in green who tells stories. She herself wasn’t creepy. Her being written by a white cis male who finds it necessary to describe her breasts was the creepy part. The further back I go with a book, the more forgiving I am of these things, but for 1984, Holdstock had the opportunity to be a little more enlightened.