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When people think of fantasy novels, they usually think of woods. Trees and rivers and magic and elves and great battles. Those are common parts of fantasy novels, which is why I’m always expecting something along those lines when I pick up a book in the fantasy genre.
But the last fantasy novel I read surprised me. It had woods, like most others. How could it not? With a name like Where the Woods Grow Wild, I’d feel cheated if it didn’t. But its woods were different from the ones I’m used to seeing in other books. And instead of elves, I got shapeshifters and less-than-elegant dryads. In place of great battles, I got struggles on a smaller, more personal scale.
It was unlike many fantasy novels I’ve read, and in the best possible way.
Where the Woods Grow Wild is written and published by Nate Philbrick, a talented author who writes fantasy novels that tend to move into the lighter side of storytelling, rather than the dark and depressing mood that dominates the speculative fiction genre.
It is probably due to this outlook that his novel is much more unique than most: It delves into the happier, delightful (though still thoughtful) side of fantasy that is often overlooked. Where the Woods Grow Wild is the kind of story I think we all could use a little more of.
Bardun village is a fairly quiet place. Nothing important really goes on there, but nothing dangerous ever happens, either. Martin spends his days working in the steamy kitchens of the Cabbage Cart Inn. Elodie spends her days not working as the mayor’s courier. They get into mischief with each other when they can, but it never causes any permanent damage.
Until, one day, it does. After stumbling into the forest that looms outside of Bardun village, Martin is attacked by a strange animal. Nobody ever goes into that forest, so nobody knows what it is that bit Martin’s hand, or how to save it.
Losing a hand is better than losing a life, but Martin finds himself consumed with the idea of tracking down the animal that wreaked havoc with his life. When he and Elodie go looking for the creature that stole his hand, they become separated and lost in a forest that nobody knows anything about. It’s there, where the woods grow wild, that Martin and Elodie learn why exactly nobody of Bardun village ever enters the forest: It’s not exactly the kind of place a kitchen worker and a courier can easily survive.
Nate Philbrick’s wrote this story in a cheerful, light tone while also dealing with some rather serious issues, such as losing family members and learning to live with a disability. It’s the type of funny, clever writing that reminds me of Lloyd Alexander.
While it’s hard to choose my favorite part about this book, I have to go with the world building. Bardun village was an interesting little place of thatched cottages, orchards, pigs, and ordinary people. The type of ideal, yet maybe a bit boring, village that was perfectly contrasted by the mysterious woods.
As far as fantasy novels go, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a forest more fully developed than this one. I mean, yes, most of the book does take place in this forest so it probably should be well rounded, but still. It’s pretty darn cool. It has trunders and ankle snatchers, prickle toads and truffles, puffernuts (mustn’t eat) and turtleblossums (mustn’t poke). There was always some new piece of information to discover, and that kept the world fresh and interesting.
Of course, the characters kept things fresh and interesting, too. Martin’s struggle with losing his hand is a sad one to read, but it was handled extremely well. We see him move through many of the different stages of loss: grief, anger, embarrassment, desperation. I felt for his pain and really, really wanted to see him find a way to work out of it.
Which is exactly how Elodie felt. Elodie worked hard to show that she cared about Martin anyway, giving him presents, helping him recover, trying to save him from himself. Her friendship/romance with Martin was very strong and sweet. Exactly the kind I’d like to see more of.
But on to my favorite character: Illo, a girl from the forest. Feisty, skilled with the bow, and often irritated with Martin’s perceived helplessness, she provided both a good amount of comic relief and a perfect buffer to Martin’s more steady, anxious character. I’d read an entire book about her upbringing if I ever get the chance. *cough* Did you catch that, Nate Philbrick? *cough* *cough*
The messages in this book were just as well thought out as the characters. Martin’s pain upon losing his hand was not only physical, but mental. His struggles came not only from living life without a hand, but also from losing confidence in himself. He placed a massive burden on himself as soon as he decided that have one less hand made him less of a person, and this led to him ostracizing those that cared about him most. His struggle to break out of this thinking – and Elodie’s struggle to help him – lent an extra layer to the story and can really get a reader thinking about the undue pain we tend to push upon ourselves and others when we hurt or get confused.
Where the Woods Grow Wild had very little wrong with it. The fun yet thoughtful mood, outstanding world-building, and great characters left little to be desired. The only problems was a slight predictability of plot points, which didn’t bother me since the journey of getting to said plot points was entertaining and enjoyable. There was also a matter of a shapeshifter and its need to hide its true identity that had a few loose ends I can’t go into because of spoilers.
None of these small problems really bothered me, though. Writing a good book is hard. But writing a good book that takes on some hard problems while also making you laugh? That is the definition of impressive.
Where the Woods Grow Wild by Nate Philbrick is a brilliant indie fantasy novel that I highly recommend, not only for the light writing style, brilliant characters, and excellent world building, but for the amount of thought that went into the messages of family, friendship, and fighting to overcome not only the hardships placed upon you, but the hardships you place upon yourself.
I am excited to see what other stories Nate Philbrick has in store for us. Have you read Where the Woods Grow Wild? Leave your thoughts below and tell me your favorite part about this great fantasy novel!