For years now I've had friends who talked about Druids and The Green Man, in hushed tones and with an odd mixture of respect and sly delight. And I read about Tolkien's Ents, the tree characters who won a battle by overgrowing the enemy. And there was Mythago Wood, where the wood was as much a character (and more plot) than the people in the story.
But lately, I've seen a new trend. It's clearly a trend, since I read it in three books in a row, by very different authors. This is an active, erotic Wood. It messes with Human females and creates half-Human/half-Wooden offspring.
The whole concept boggles my mind. The first time I ran into it was in Peter Beagle's newest book, Tamsin. The book is told by Jenny, a 13-year-old American, who gets unwillingly transplanted to a very atmospheric English farm. You know the atmosphere is going to be thick when you hear that Salisbury and Stonehenge are nearby.
To be fair, the Oakmen are only a part of the action in Tamsin; Jenny runs into pookas, ghosts, The Wild Hunt, a veritable kitchen sink full of things that go bump - or more sinister actions - in the night. The underlying plot is about a lost love, lost through a tragic misunderstanding, which can, with our heroine's help, be redeemed and refound, in spite of the undead villainŐs enlistment of hellish aid. The imagery is, as you'd expect from Peter Beagle, painted with a strong brush. The live characters, Jenny, her best friend, her parents, stepfather and stepbrothers are carefully fleshed out. We come to know them all very well.
Jenny is very American, very laid back and modern, which makes the language somehow flat. What should be weird and wild is almost ordinary, which spoils the book a little for me. The Wild Hunt and the obsessed Judge Jeffries - so obsessed that 300-years dead, he is still menacing - should be the most memorable things in the book, but oddly enough the Oakmen and the Hundred-Acre Wood are the most vivid in memory.
Patricia McKillip uses the Wood even more directly in Winter Rose. This is a semi-medieval tale, featuring English countryside again, another lost love and his son come back to claim a lost heritage. The core of the story seems to be about the lasting effects of child abuse, but it is inter-mixed with the dangers and rewards of getting too close to the Wood. There is some possibility that the heroine, free-spirited Rois, is a bastard child of the Wood; certainly Corbet, the hero come home to a chilling hall, is half Wood-child.
McKillip's language is evocative and sensuous; she manages to make being seduced by a tree seem possible, even enticing. Her book requires that you pay close attention, since the characters practice time-travel along with odd sex. It is a delightful romance, and an effective fantasy.
And so we come to Sharon Shinn's The Shape Changer's Wife. To be fair, I might not have guessed the secret so quickly had I not read the Beagle and the McKillip first. Young, clever Aubrey goes to study under Glyrendon, who brags that he can change not only his own shape, but the shape of others. His servants are fairly obviously changed beasts; and his wife is odder still.
Of course Aubrey falls in love with the strange woman who keeps telling him she doesn't feel anything, and reacts woodenly to both her insensitive, loutish husbandŐs caresses and young Aubrey's words of love. It takes Aubrey a lot longer to figure out what she really is, and then even longer to come to terms with what she really wants.
Aubrey is surprisingly sympathetic character, as is Lilith (the wife). The husband is a more three-dimensional evil magician, since his evilness is more a function of all-too-human cruelty combined with magic powers, and not the usual magic power corrupting. The magic itself is well and unusually realized, with small, effective surprises in the side effects and consequences.
All three books were interesting and enjoyable fantasies, but it still makes for a disturbing trend. As I said in the beginning, what IS it with the Wood?
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