Channelling weird ideas into novels has always been a favorite outlet of my own. I have been told I am a zealously imaginative person, and when I was young (or not so young) I would write fantastical stories about superheroes and wild west showdowns and the like. I now channel my weird ideas into this blog, for one, and the ears of my friends, for another, but Colin Meloy has done one better and actually gotten them published in novel form!
Alright, before I get into the meat of my review, let me just say that even though I love the Decemberists, I will do my best to be fair to the book. They are great. I saw them live in August on their "The King is Dead" tour, and they were freaking awesome. And moreover, Meloy was funny. Didn't see that one coming, for some reason. Anyhow, despite my love affair with their music and despite the fact that this book has shades of them in it, Wildwood is strictly a Meloy venture.
In case you are unfamiliar, Wildwood is Meloy's first foray into novels, and is the first of three purported installments. The basic plotline: Prue McKeel's life in Portland, Oregon, is boring and ordinary, until one day when a murder of crows abducts her baby brother and flies off with him into a giant forest bordering the city known as "The Impassable Wilderness". Her mission: retrieve her brother. With the help of a bumbling accidental tag-along in the form of her classmate Curtis Mehlberg, she braves the wildnerness in search of her brother.
First, the positives. What a great vocabulary. One thing I love about the Decemberists is their propensity to use college-level words to express themselves. To me, it's like they're saying, "No, we don't think you're dumb, and to prove it we're going to expect you understand some big words". Thank you, a thousand times. I am likewise going to do the same and say that if a child reading this book doesn't understand them, it challenges him or her to look up the definitions and stretch some dendrytes. Dendryte stretching is always a good idea. Secondly, though Meloy seems to pay homage (heavily sometimes) to such fantasy predecessors as J. R. R. Tolkien (at one point in my head I was doing my best Billy Boyd "THE EAGLES ARE COMING"), C. S. Lewis (evil queen of the wood), and others, the plot line is varied, interesting, and rich. I found myself still entertained basically up until the bitter end, which is not something I can say for all children's or fantasy literature or a combination thereof. Especially creative is his portrait of a particular prison, where cages woven from branches are strung from a giant tree's roots sixty feet above a rock-strewn, stalagmatic floor, and the only access to them comes from a precariously flimsy ladder.
Secondly, the negatives -- or at least, hesitations. It took me a while to get into this particular book. I really had to sit down for a big chunk of time and get about 100 pages in before I really got into it. The climactic scene is not quite as climactic as it could've been, but other nailbiters made up for it. Additionally, it wasn't much of a problem for me because the reading went quickly, but this baby was 540 pages long. I've read reviews where people say he could've cut out half the book, but I just don't see how. Yes, it's super long, but that's part of the enjoyment. Meloy takes the time to wend his way through the story, making you familiar with the place and the characters. This story is decidedly old-fashioned, and it takes its time in an old-fashioned way. I, for one, love a story like that.
All in all, if you've got the love of the Decemberists, some patience, and an enjoyment of children's literature, fantasy, and a hint of the archaic, pick up this book. Wildwood is a great beginning to what will hopefully be a triumphant trilogy. Make no bones about it, either. This may be sorted in the kids' section, but this book is for adults and children alike. It uses adult language, adult situations, and deals with sordid and realistic issues of life (child abduction, murder, stealing, infertility, etc.) in an adult fashion. Meloy treats children with respect and a sense of playfulness, and it will tickle the reader, whatever age they may be.