The Short Version: After Prue McKeel sees her baby brother kidnapped by a murder of crows, she sets off into the “Impassible Wilderness” outside of Portland, a place far more interesting than anyone’d ever led her to believe. Not just an impassible wood but rather a roaring civilization, tucked away from the outside world by a magic barrier – and it has some problems of its own to boot. Prue ends up a part of the struggle for the future of the Wood – hopefully saving her brother in the process.
The Review: Of course Colin Meloy wrote a twee fantastical children’s novel. I mean, the guy’s songs are epic in scope – The Hazards of Love being a wildly underrated and utterly fantastic song-suite-slash-operetta – and his wife is a fantastic illustrator. So all of this makes sense. I just wish it felt a little less ponderous at times.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lovely sense of world-building here and the setup is quite complex for a children’s novel – there’s definitely a lot here to occupy the adult reader as well, especially dealing with the political complexities of the realm and the various shifting alliances. But why does it need to be so drawn out? This book clocks in at over five hundred pages – and you can feel it. The book’s got a doorstop heft to it, not unlike any given Stephen King novel of recent vintage, but I just can’t understand why it needed to be so long. It doesn’t so much drag as never quite seems to actually take flight. There are some wonderful moments and Carson Ellis’ illustrations lend a terrifically seasonal whimsy to the whole thing but I found myself having to push forward over large chunks of the novel. Not a slog, not a sense of “ugh, I have to push on…” but rather just that it took effort: I didn’t find myself pulled forward, rather just clopping along apace.
Conceptually, as I mentioned, it’s quite a bold story – if still full of tropes and cliches. Prue seems, at times, wiser than her years… but also frightfully young, confused by all of it. But a bold female character is always a welcome thing in children’s literature and the fact that Meloy gave both Prue and Curtis their own arcs that developed and diverged… that was nice. But also, the constant shifting back and forth – sometimes several times in the course of just a few pages – between their stories/points of view felt bothersome. Again, there was never a chance to get one’s rhythm going because we were constantly shuttling back and forth between the two.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I didn’t not like the novel – but I realize that I don’t have too much to say about it. I’d hoped that this would be a trilogy that I would find myself really drawn to but instead I just sort of felt like it was the literary equivalent (for me) of a shrug in a warm jacket. Feels fine, but, also, eh. You know? The concept isn’t quite borne up by the execution, sadly.