There is high fantasy, such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, urban fantasy as admirably espoused by authors such as Charles de Lint, and this piece, which might be called rural fantasy. Windling mixes elements of Celtic myth, native American folklore, the rarified worlds of poetry and surrealistic painters with the desert setting of the area surrounding Tucson to create a well crafted work of slightly nebulous otherness, an evocation of the mystical, that will resonate with and absorb the reader.
Maggie Black, journalist and sometime poet, divorced but still somewhat in love with her high-profile musician husband, is the main character. Maggie inherits the property of Pulitzer prize winning poet David Cooper upon his mysterious death by drowning (in the desert!). With the idea of writing Cooper's biography, she goes to his home located in the hills above Tucson. Once there, she is slowly drawn into the rhythm of life in the desert, finding beauty in the landscape and the local people, and gradually finding new interpretations of Cooper's most famous poems collectively known as The Wood Wife. From this prosaic beginning, the story slowly adds elements of the fantastic, as Cooper's inspiration for the poems and his lover's surrealistically painted visions of the creatures that populate the area becomes evident.
Maggie's character is well portrayed, that of a somewhat insecure woman slowly finding her own self worth from behind the smothering light of her former husband, finding her own long-buried poetic voice, finding a way to deal with fantastic events and creatures while remaining a practical cosmopolitan woman of today's world. Cooper himself becomes a distinct voice, as we see many of the letters that he wrote when he first settled in the area and was drawn into the area's ambience. The characters of Johnny Foxxe and some of the magical creatures are not so well defined, in some cases merely sketched in for use as plot enhancers, and could have used some further development work.
The descriptive prose work is excellent - it is easy to get the feeling and mental picture of the area, people, and creatures, while at the same time things are not over-described, allowing the reader to fill in his own mental picture.
The eventual story climax is perhaps slightly disappointing, as it seemed to me to derive too many of its elements from fairly well known folk tales, and certain of those elements were really unnecessary, gratuitously added to fill out the story line. But this is a minor quibble to what is in general a very engrossing story that is quite different from the normal, well told, with a definite poetic air that is far above the typical fantasy work attempts at the evocation of faery. And there is a level of meaning beyond the straightforward story line, a fair amount of both psychology and the symbolic, that is also quite unusual in a fantasy work.
Recommended for anyone looking for something different from the standard everyday fare that fills the book racks to overflowing.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)