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A Way Through the Woods
on 27 August 2009
It's only taken 25 years but it's been worth the wait. Holdstock has finally been persuaded to write a direct sequel to his World Fantasy Award winner, Mythago Wood, and it lives up to its primogenitor. After beating about the bush in tangential titles sharing the unique mythos of Ryhope Wood - some more effectively than others ('Lavondyss', which followed MW, is a novel of haunting beauty in its own right) - Holdstock has finally picked up the storyline directly from the famously open ending of the first, which saw Steven's glimmering girl, Celtic princess Guiwenneth, being abducted by his father (in the primal figure of the Urscumug) and taken back through the wall of fire that guards the way to Lavondyss. A coda relates how a giant came to a tall stone marking the edge of his known world, the head of a valley where he met a hunter waiting for 'the girl who came back through the fire' and this bequeaths the valley with its later name, imarn uklyss.
And finally, she did.
Steven and Guiwenneth are reunited. They settle down in the valley in an old Roman villa (a mythago conjured from Steven's memory) and have a couple of children, Jack and Yssobel. Avilion resumes the story at the point when this idyll is shattered. Guiwenneth has disappeared and Yssobel has gone to find her - heading inwards to Avilion/Lavondyss. Jack (half human, half mythago like his sister - both 'red' and 'green') journeys outwards to the edge of Ryhope - desperate to see the world of his father, the Lodge where it all started, the village of Shadoxhurst, and hopefully find some clues that will help in the search. By the time Jack reaches 'the fields we know' it is the present day (the original disappearance of the three Huxley men - George, Steven and Christian - occured in the late Forties). As all travellers of Faerie discover, time runs differently in each world. In a intertextual touch Steven has quested Jack with finding his old copy of The Time Machine in the Lodge. Jack's presence there dislodges the ghost/mythago of his grandfather, George Huxley - and we have some insight into the original chain of events.
Echoes and reflections.
This occurs alot throughout the book - things overlap. The polder of Ryhope Wood has a porous boundary - the real world leaks into it and it leaks into the real world (one of Holdstock's new characters Caylen Reeve, a charismatic shaman figure living in the village, epitomises this). This symbiotic nature is not surprising, for Mythago Wood is a cypher for the imagination, a zone of subconscious creativity - 'Avilion is what we make it' - and its at its most fertile where the two worlds (waking and dreams/conscious and subconscious) meet. Holdstock is not afraid to plunder (or cross-reference) his own treasure hoard. Christian's army of the lost, Legion, marches into the book from the pages of 'Gates of Horn, Gates of Ivory' and that wily Greek sea captain, Odysseus, pops up as a love interest to the young Yssobel - a kind of leftover 'mythago' from the Merlin Codex (Holdstock's Celtic/Ancient Greece crosshatch trilogy). This self-referencing could become a law of diminishing returns but it satisfyingly capitalises on previous books in the sequence and draws the threads together. The multi-linerar narrative structure is bold - intercutting between mainly Jack and Yssobel's journey, but sometimes switching to Guiwenneth's, Steven's, Christian's...ambitiously from first to third. In his weaker work, this cut-and-paste method can leave the reader floundering. Here, Holdstock carries it off. His years' of experience have paid off - he has found an assured narrative voice, having in previous novels sometimes been in danger of writing a pastiche of himself, wilfully obscure gobbledigook masking dodgy characterisation and structure.
The prose is well-honed and lucid. The characters of Jack and Yssobel are convincing - indeed Yssobel's voice comes across the clearest and this is more her story than anyones. The portrayal of the older Steven and Guiwenneth is a believable depiction of marriage - albeit a mythopoeic one - and Steven's transformation into his father touching (it could even be a gently self-deprecating self-portrait). Holdstock includes a selection of his poetry - one of which, 'Fields of Tartan' is based upon his grandfather's memories of the First World War - he incorporates this into the narrative effectively, but the personal reference gives the whole thing added poignancy. Holdstock also dedicates the book to the memory of his father, who died before it was finished: again, this fact gives the story an added depth, as the novelist depicts an otherworld where loved ones never die. It is a novel about homecoming - 'What we remember is all the home we need' - and in 'Avilion' Holdstock has finally come home. This is a fantasy novel willing to depict mature relationships and shows Holdstock's maturity as a fantasy novelist.
As all true works of art, 'Avilion' conveys something fundamental about the human condition: why we, the human creature, need to dream, to explore, to discover, to take risks, even to suffer - if we are to truly grow:
'We held and held until we broke,
But in the breaking, we held,
and in the holding we will find Avilion' (Holdstock)
Diehard fans of Holdstock/the Mythago Wood novels should be truly satisfied by this definitive sequel, whileas newcomes to Ryhope could be sufficiently enchanted to wish to plunge deeper into its mythos.
'Avilion' feels like a conclusive end to the George/Steven/Christian/Guiwenneth story - but not perhaps the Mythago Wood itself: the further you go in, the bigger it gets. I for one am glad that Ryhope will always be there, just across the field, over the brook, a Secondary World within reach for those willing to step into its shade.
A novel of deep magic and haunting beauty.