Terri Windling: The Wood Wife (1996)

Terri Windling is an American author, editor, artist and essayist. Together with Ellen Datlow she’s edited numerous anthologies of fantasy/speculative fiction short stories. As a writer she’s famous for the use of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales.

Her second novel, The Wood Wife, which was published in 1996, is set in the Sonora desert and tells the story of the poet Maggie Black. Maggie Black has inherited the house of poet Davis Cooper who lived in the Rincon mountains, near Tucson for decades. Cooper was something like a mentor for Maggie and it was always her greatest wish to meet him in person. Unfortunately, this never happened. She’s surprised that Cooper, who was found murdered in the desert, chose her as his inheritor and travels to the Sonora desert with great trepidation. She hopes she’ll be able to write his biography and find out whether, as she suspects, he’s been writing secretly. Officially, Cooper stopped writing a long time ago. Possibly because he didn’t get over the death of his wife, Mexican painter Anna Naverra.

Maggie is used to big cities and coming to a place that’s as remote as Cooper’s house, is a huge challenge. Living there, even more so. Luckily, she finds the people living close by, former friends of Cooper, are very welcoming.

Soon after her arrival, strange things begin to happen. It’s as if the mountain and its fauna has a life of its own. All seems linked to Anna’s paintings and Cooper’s poems. Or is it the other way around? Did the paintings and poems come alive? Maggie embarks on a journey of discovery that is anything but safe.

The Wood Wife is such a haunting, beautiful book for many reasons. The way Terri Windling captures the desert, its flora and fauna is magical, even before she mentions any mythological creatures or folklore. The reader can feel how powerful it is and how it transforms Maggie from the beginning because she’s open to its beauty and wildness. Maggie has left behind a life that wasn’t all success and happiness. She was married to a famous musician who was unfaithful and cost her a lot of energy. In traveling to the Sonora desert, Maggie also hopes to return to her own writing. The connection of art and life and the theme of relationships between artists or between famous and less famous artist are some of the most important elements of this story. The book explores different possibilities and also different views of art.

Here’s Maggie:

I supported my ex-husband all through the lean years at the beginning of his career. I stopped writing poetry and hustled my butt getting every magazine assignment I could. Cooper was furious with me but I wouldn’t listen; I was in love, and ready to join that long tradition of the little woman behind the great man. . . I think I had this romantic vision of being The Artist’s Muse–but instead I was just The Hardworking Wife. And the muses were all the ladies that my husband had on the side.”

And this is Fox:

“You assume that what I want is what you would want: Success, Recognition. I’m not like you. I’m not like Cooper. That’s not what a good life means to me. Playing music is a high, for sure–but there’s other things that I like just as much. Carpentry, for instance; it’s honest work, it’s solid, it’s real, it pays a living wage . . . I give free music lessons to kids . . . I like having time for things like that. And time for my friends. And for myself. I don’t want to spend all my time hustling music. Just want to play it, enjoy it, and have a life.”

The Wood Wife tells, among many things, also a beautiful love story and stories of friendship. The strength of these stories stems from the wonderful, complex characters.

I enjoyed this book very much and read it very slowly. Terri Windling created a magical world that is beautiful but not cute. Life in the desert is harsh. For months it’s dry and then when it rains, everything is flooded and the people living on the mountain are trapped there. Coyotes and rabbits roam freely but they are also hunted by poachers and tourists who think it’s a fun sport. In many ways, this is a very realistic depiction of a landscape and a way of life but then the book goes deeper and uses mythology and folklore to show what a magical, powerful place the Sonora is.

Here’s what Cooper says:

I need a land where sun and wind will strip a man down to the soul and bleach his dying bones. I want to speak the language of stones.

The Wood Wife reminded me of a few European fantasy books, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock or Alan Gardner’s The Owl Service. They use European folklore and mythology, in the same way Windling uses North American Indian folklore. The juxtaposition of these two different, yet similar approaches is even addressed in the book.

“I’ve studied Davis Cooper as an English poet. Born and raised in the West Country. So when I read his poems I see English woods, I see the moor, and hedgerows, and walls of stone. And then I drive up here,” she waved her hand at the dry land around them, “and I realise that these are the woods he’s been talking about all along. These hills. This sky. Now I’m reading a whole different set of poems when I look at Cooper’s work.”

The illustration of the book cover shows artwork by Susan Seddon Boulet. Her artwork captures the spirit of Windling’s book. I’ve attached another example of her work above.

In the afterword, Terri Windling writes that she was inspired by the art of British artist Brian Froud. The picture above is one of his Faerie Realm series.

I discovered this book a while ago on Grace’s blog Books Without Any Pictures. You can read her review here.

Those who are interested in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, might love Terri Windling’s blog, Myth and Moor. The essays are outstanding and the photos so beautiful.

Kelley Armstrong: Omens (2013) The Cainsville Trilogy I

Omens

I always meant to return to Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, but when I saw she has a new series out, which is a real departure from her dark fantasy series and much more of a thriller/crime series, I was very interested.

Omens is a terrific read and an unusual genre, one could call it a thriller with elements of magical realism. The only bad thing I can say about this book is that it’s not a standalone and that part II will only be out in 2014.

Olivia Talyor-Jones is a 24-year-old, rich society girl, just about to get married to her fiancé James when her world is turned upside down. Not only does she find out that she has been adopted, but her birth parents are serving a life sentence. They are serial killers who have committed four ritualistic murders.

Shocked by the discovery, haunted by the press and pushed away by her adoptive mother and her fiancé, she follows some signs and ends up in the small-town Cainsville, located not too far away from her hometown Chicago. Olivia decides to cut herself off from her former life for the time being, to look for an apartment and get a job.

Cainsville is a small town that seems to be stuck in another time and as soon as Olivia arrives, she encounters signs and omens which lead her to different interesting discoveries about the town and its people and her parents. Her birth parents hear that she has been found and want to get in contact with her. When Olivia meets dubious lawyer Gabriel Walsh, who was her birth mother’s lawyer during one of her appeals, she decides to visit Pamela, her mothe, and hire Walsh.

There were always doubts about her parents really being serial killers and after Olivia has met her mother and memories of her early childhood resurface, she starts to hope that they are innocent and, together with Gabriel, she wants to prove it. Their research puts them in great danger and the story we get to read is suspenseful and fast-paced.

The end of this book tells me that the supernatural elements which are toned down in this book, will become more important in the future. It seems that Olivia has been brought to Cainsville for a reason.

I enjoyed Omens a great deal and can hardly wait for the next book. This absorbing novel would appeal to people who do not like to read fantasy but enjoy a good thriller with a strong and likable heroine. There is potential for a love story here as well. I liked the description of the small town Cainsville a lot. It reminded me a bit of  Louise Penny’s Three Pines, just with some magical realism thrown in.

This is my third contribution to Carl’s RIP VIII. At this pace I will have read four books before the second month starts. So far I have covered these genres”Haunted House”, “Urban Fantasy” and “Thriller”. Next up is, hopefully, – “Gaslamp Fantasy” (don’t tell me you are not intrigued).

If you’d like to see what others have reviewed so far, here’s the link to the  RIP review site.

Jo Walton: Among Others (2010)

With a deft hand and a blazing imagination, fantasy writer Walton mixes genres to great effect. Elements of fantasy, science fiction, and coming-of-age novels combine into one superlative literary package that will appeal to a variety of readers across age levels. After engaging in a classic good-magic-versus-bad-magic battle with her mother that fatally wounds her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna leaves Wales and attempts to reconnect with her estranged father. She was sent to boarding school in England, and her riveting backstory unfolds gradually as she records her thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a series of journal entries.

Jo Walton’s Among Others is an absolutely charming book. Despite the fact that there are some magical things happening this isn’t a fantasy novel.  It is a novel about fantasy and SF and, if anything, I would call it magical realism. What is charming about this book is not the magic, which is raw, wild and dangerous but Morwenna’s voice and her love of books, reading and libraries.

Morwenna’s story unfolds in a series of diary entries. The year is 1979 and Morwenna has just arrived at and English boarding school. She is a 15-year-old girl from Wales whose twin sister has died in an accident. The very same accident has left her injured and crippled. As we learn in the novel the accident was the result of their evil mother’s doing. The girls tried to stop her from getting more power through magic and that’s how the accident happened.

Morwenna is an outsider at her new school. She is crippled and the only one from Wales. But that isn’t the only thing that makes her an outsider. She knows that she is different. Her mother is a witch. Morwanna only just met her father whose sisters are witches as well, she sees and talks to faeries and she is addicted to reading SF novels. Novels are her consolation.

“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”

Books are her escape route but also her way to make sense of the world. Her enthusiasm and love for books is one of the most important elements in this novel. At the boarding school she discovers what libraries have to offer, is introduced to inter library loan which opens the world for her even more and finally she is invited to a SF book club. Once a week she will discuss all her favourite SF and fantasy writers and learn about new books and authors and go on reading her new discoveries in her spare time.

I sat on the bench by the willows and ate my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside of the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.

At the book club she meets Tim a gorgeously beautiful boy with a bad reputation. It’s for her to discover whether it is founded or not.

I haven’t read a lot of SF and although I knew the names, I hardly knew any of the books still it was captivating to read about them, to see what elements she picked for her life, what themes, questions and speculations fascinated her.

The voice of Morwenna is very well rendered. This sounds like a young girl discovering the world and new books. We follow her thoughts and see how they develop, how wrong assumptions are corrected, how new things are learned.

The magical parts can be read in many different ways. A sceptical reader could just assume that it is all in Morwenna’s imagination. That grief, sadness and the constant pain she is in lead her to fantasize. It would make sense as well. If you are less sceptical you can just accept the fact, that, yes, she does see fairies and has an evil witch mother. The fairies are very interesting beings and she also mentions that they have nothing in common with Tolkien’s elves. Some of them look like gnomes, others are very beautiful. They are tied to places and seem like some sort of condensed energy.

A part that spoke to me is, the description of Morwenna’s pain. The descrptions were very realistic. The way chronic pain changes, how she tries to handle it, the cures that are provided, the wrong therapy she gets from conventional doctors and how she finally gets better through acupuncture.

Jo Walton lives in Canada but she is from Wales. The differnce between Wales and England is emphasized all through the novel. Half of the French side of my family is from Brittany. The difference to the rest of France is very similar. And you also find a lot of magical beliefs in Brittany. I grew up believing in loup-garous (werewolves) and nobody would have made me go out during a full moon when we were on holidays in Morlaix.

Amon Others is a very unusual coming of age story and I’m glad I read about it on Gavin’s blog (here is her post). I can’t imagine that anyone who loves books wouldn’t be able to relate to the intense love of reading that is capured in this book.