Convalescing in France after WWII, Steve Huxley hears of the death of his father, who for many years has been obsessed by the woodland bordering their home. Returning home, Steve finds that his brother Christian has now also been 'infected' by their father's obsession, developing a tendency to roam Ryhope Wood for days or even weeks at a time, searching for...something. As Steve delves into his father's research, he learns the secrets of the woodland and what affect his own desires are having on it.
Mythago Wood, the first book in the Mythago Wood Cycle, was first published twenty-five years ago (when it promptly won the World Fantasy Award) and has become a highly-regarded work over the intervening period. It's not an epic fantasy, but neither is it the kind of twee and fairy-riddled work the synopsis or its reputation as a 'woodland fantasy' suggests. Instead, it's a powerful and effecting look at mythology and language, invoking the origins of pagan rituals and the development of history into myth. It's also a very human story of a father whose all-consuming obsession destroyed his marriage and damaged the relationship with his sons, whilst the two brothers' relationship forms the core of the novel.
Holdstock's Ryhope Wood is vividly described. You can almost feel the twigs snapping under your feet as the story proceeds deeper into the heartwoods, and the sense of dislocated time is conveyed very well. Holdstock also manages an impressive balancing act by having the odd properties of Ryhope Wood described in almost scientific terms, but the central sense of magical mystery remains intact and compelling.
Another interesting side of the story is that whilst Holdstock mentions the traditional English mythological figures of Robin Hood and Arthur, he also makes use of a great deal of Celtic and Welsh imagery which are less familiar, but equally fascinating, to the casual reader.
If the book has a weakness, it's the near-total lack of scepticism on the part of any of the human characters about what is going on. Whilst it's refreshing not to have to deal with a corny, "But this can't be happening!" spiel every five pages, the total lack of surprise on the part of the central character to much of what occurs does feel a little odd. In addition, a major character abruptly bows out of the narrative just before the end, in a move that feels like it was meant to establish groundwork for the semi-sequel, Lavondyss, rather than entirely make sense within the confines of this novel.
These are extremely minor concerns. Mythago Wood (****½) is a rich and textured novel about myth which is thought-provoking and densely atmosphere. The novel is available in the UK in a new anniversary edition and also as part of an omnibus. It is also available now in the USA.