Monday, 14 September 2009

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

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.


Anonymous said...

"...traditional English mythological figures of Robin Hobb and Arthur, he also..."


Adam Whitehead said...

Yes. Argh :-)

ArtSparker said...

Just read Mythago Wood and its sequel - the sequel is even better and avoids the disbelief issue to some extent by having a 13 year old girl at its center. That major character who bows out never appears as anything more than a plot device in the sequel though. I must admit one thing I like about these books is their flaws - that they are lumpy and open-ended makes them somehow very honest.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, glad I caught it then, and nice review. I bought the book years ago but have never got around to reading it. Might have to give it a shot soon.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those books that stays with you after reading it. I'd be interested in a review of the sequel(s) as I've never read it (them?). Are you planning to do that?

Unknown said...

im a big fan of your site, have been for over a year. you're about the only blogger thats reviewed one of my favorite complete fantasy series a crown of stars. I thought Mythago wood was good but not on a Guy Gavriel Kay level. When will you review his other novels? im of the opinion that he is the king of the genre right now. I have one book to recommend and i think you'd appreciate it: Speaks the nightbird by Robert Mccammon

Adam Whitehead said...

More Kay reviews planned, but not in the near future. I've spent a lot of the summer reviewing older books and there's a number of newer releases I need to get to. The next review will be MYTHAGO WOOD's sequel, LAVONDYSS, however.

The Fantasizer said...

I read Graeme's review of "Mythago wood" a few days ago and having myself read the book a couple of weeks ago I did'nt really agree with his perception of perfection about the book.
It's great and all but you really pick the shortcomings man. The lack of surprise: very true, now that i read your review I remembered how odd I felt that neither Harry nor Stephen quite find their situation discomfitting or odd.
And the timing and circumstances of Christain's demise are certainly far from perfect.
Still a great book, original, unique, different from usual fantasy,time well spent reading!

Jacob @ Drying Ink said...

Yeah, I really should give this one a go. It's been sitting with me for weeks, now. Argh :P

Anonymous said...

Love the site Adam, it has become an addiction of mine to look at it every day, so thank you for your work.

Just finished Mythago wood and can't really make up my mind about it. I liked it but i am not gushing with praise for it (same as Avatar really). It suprised me as I share your opinion on most of the books you've reveiwed and the TV series for that matter. Maybe, it was because I read it sporadically over the Christmas period and never allowed the story to flow.

Incidentally, I second the Robert McCammon recommendation. Great book.