Colin Meloy,
The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I: Wildwood
(Balzer & Bray, 2011)

I had high expectations for Wildwood. I mean, it's Colin Meloy of the Decemberists: he writes erudite, unique songs that stay in your head forever. Wildwood is his first foray into fiction, a children's fantasy that has shades of Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis. It's an enjoyable read and a fine adventure, but it's hard not to wish that Meloy had taken more risks with the story, strayed off the path every so often.

Our young heroine is Prue McKeel, a precocious preteen with an interest in botanical illustration and a baby brother who has been abducted by a murder of crows. And not just abducted, but taken into the Impassable Wilderness, a wooded area in Portland that no one goes into -- and no one has ever returned from. Of course, that's not stopping Prue. Accompanied by her nerdy schoolmate Curtis, she plunges into a fantastic world where coyotes, birds and dogs talk, postmen are armed with double-barreled rifles and a terrible power struggle is taking place. The stakes: Prue's brother and the fate of all Wildwood.

The plot is pretty basic for a 500-plus page book, but there are plenty of interesting characters (plus a memorable villain) and events to keep readers flipping the pages. Meloy's writing is confident, intelligent and accessible both to his middle reader audience as well as adult readers who know him from the Decemberists.

Still, I was frustrated that the true extent of Meloy's imagination seemed confined to brief flashes -- the fate of the governess's son, a handful of short but quirky character descriptions. And even in a genre known for its pathetic adults, Prue's parents take the cake for being whiny, ineffectual and dense. Their bad choices are necessary to the plot, but seriously strain credulity.

In plot and tone, Wildwood feels a bit like a loving tribute to classic fantasy adventures by C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll and Lloyd Alexander. Although it contains a few references to Prue's modern-day life (yoga, rice milk, computers), it has a distinctively vintage feel. Carson Ellis's many charming illustrations and silhouettes add to the effect.

I don't really think Wildwood is an instant classic, but it's a fast-paced and enjoyable fantasy adventure with a resourceful heroine. I'd come back for seconds.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

12 November 2011

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