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When I saw this book at the public library, I thought it had a striking design. This, including loads of quirky but beautiful illustrations, is the work of Carson Ellis, who has also decorated books by Lemony Snicket and Trenton Lee Stewart. As for the author, I thought his name sounded familiar. Only later, after I had brought the book home, did I connect it with the alternative rock band the Decemberists, of which Colin Meloy is the lead singer and songwriter. If you’re familiar with his music, you may not be surprised to learn that hints of a political message and of a New Agey, earth-magic type of spirituality perfume the pages of his book. But it’s also a thrilling fantasy adventure featuring a couple of kids from St. Johns, Portland, Oregon, who find a strange, magical, perilous world hidden within a short bicycle ride of their city.
One fine day, Prue McKeel is pedaling around town with her baby brother Mac in tow, when the sky is darkened by a murder of crows. Catching Mac up in their talons, they carry him away across the river, past the Industrial Waste, and into the Impassible Wilderness where Prue’s parents have always warned her never to go. She goes anyway, to save her brother. A nerdy neighbor named Curtis tags along. Almost immediately they are separated, when Curtis is captured by a pack of coyotes who walk on their hind legs, wear military uniforms, and speak English. Prue falls into her own adventure, hitching a ride with the postmaster as he makes his rounds through a country where humans, birds, and animals live together as equals.
What Prue finds in the civilized South Wood is a police-state ruled by an increasingly paranoid Governor-Regent. The arrival of an outsider, together with the news she brings about crow kidnappers, threatens the stability of the regime. While the secret police starts rounding up Avians and anyone else who worries them, Prue escapes on the back of an eagle, searching for someone to help her rescue her brother.
Meanwhile, the coyotes bring Curtis to their mistress, the deposed Dowager Governess, who was kicked out of the South Wood after she went mad and started working black magic. Now she is working on getting her power back, starting by conquering the Wildwood with her canine minions. The next step of her revenge is to enact a terrible sacrifice, unleashing an ancient, slumbering force that will annihilate the entire Wood. At first tricked into helping her, Curtis is imprisoned the moment he sees what the Governess is up to.
And so it is up to two children from the outside world to save one baby and an entire fantasy land from a coyote army, an insane lady, and a ritual of death. Obviously they will need allies. Curtis will have to break out of jail. Prue will need to elude constant attempts to kill her, capture her, or trick her into going home empty-handed. And the two of them will have to persuade birds, bandits, farmers, and mystics to set aside their differences and fight together against their common enemy.
In this book the whimsical pictures of Ms. Ellis, combined with the author’s flair for sharp imagery, create a world of immense originality and delightful strangeness. It gives the impression at times of being heartwarmingly adorable or tummy-ticklingly cute. And then it turns on a dime and presents scenes of shocking violence, the terror of battle, suspense, danger, grievous loss, and burning injustice. Often within a single scene, its characters move from charming to menacing, from silly to noble, from weak to strong. It combines fairy-tale concepts, like talking animals and wicked witches, with invocations of gods, goddesses, or the force within earth, air, and trees. The latter examples prompt me to issue an Occult Content Advisory, for Christian parents to keep in mind as they decide when (or if) to introduce their kids to this fantasy world. And though it comes to a very satisfying ending, it is the first book in a trilogy called the Wildwood Chronicles. The other two books are Under Wildwood and Wildwood Imperium.