by Robert Holdstock
Tied for 1985 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel
It takes more than a record ice storm, widespread destruction, and five days without power in subfreezing temperatures to keep me down. Still I got a lot of reading done in the past few days as I huddled shivering in my house listening to every tree in a ten mile radius collapse.
So that brings me to Mythago Wood. I have to say that after the absolutely spectacular Bridge of Birds I thought there was no way that a book that tied with it could live up to that highwater mark. I was right in that regard; Mythago Wood isn't anywhere near as spectacular as Bridge of Birds is. On the other hand if it had been a World Fantasy Award winner any other year I wouldn't have blinked since I found Mythago Wood to be an interesting effort but not a monumental literary achievement.
In post-war England there is a tiny patch of ancient wood. The wood is just four miles across on the map but it is tied to human psyche. The old archetypes and myths live on in its boundaries, shaped from the subconcious of the people who live around it. And if one was to penetrate the maze of tracks to get deeper in they would find that the further in they went the larger the wood becomes.
Christian and Steven's father spent his entire life attempting to unravel the mysteries of the wood and seeking the first proto-hero at its heart. When he died his neglected sons discover the secret that the woods harbored. Steven falls in love with an ideal woman who emerges from the wood and when she dies he begins to obsess over entering the deep wood in order to find another version of her myth. When Steven vanished into the woods pursued by the proto-myth his brother Christian attempts to rescue him despite the fact that they are becoming wrapped in a myth of their own.
The central theme of Mythago Wood, the creation of myth and the exploration of those cycles through human history, is extremely strong. It's strong enough that I'd considder recommending it on that basis alone. Yes it's a theme that has been covered many times before (Neil Gaiman has built a career on it) but here it felt very different from other attempts. Part of that is Holdstock quickly abandons myths that would be familiar to readers for supposed "earlier forms" that he created. The transition in concepts and styles can be followed the deeper into the wood the story takes the reader through an enjoyable tour of prehistory.
A good concept isn't enough for me though. Fortunately the book's plot works just as well. The story of the father and both of his sons parallel each other and as such serve to reinforce that theme again. Their slow spiral to obsession as they are pulled deeper into the woods for reasons that are so similar between them is fascinating to read. The final act of the story is particularly worthy of note as myth surrounds the protagonists and they work to make the myth the one they want.
I did have a problem with the plot in that I felt the pacing was a bit awkward. The first half of the novel moves in jerks and sputtering motions. The pacing does get better in the second half where the form transitions to more of a traditional adventure story but those early pages were tough going initially.
The family conflicts that help tie the threads of the novel together are built on interesting character interactions. While Holdstock doesn't place heavy characterization in the forefront I appreciated his lighter touch. The characterization is done as subtle growth not giant epiphanies.
All in all Mythago Wood is pretty good. It's not quite as smoothly plotted as I would like but the other elements hold together well enough that I don't think it makes a significant difference. I can't say it was a brilliant novel but that doesn't diminish its qualities.