Given Colin Meloy’s propensity for obscure terms, recondite phrasing, and historical topics as the singer-songwriter frontman of The Decemberists, it would be reasonable to expect his debut novel, Wildwood, to be a dense thicket of words, possibly about the abstract, emotionally painful relationship between a guttersnipe and an eidolon in Victorian London. Instead, it’s something far more surprising: An entirely familiar mash-up of illustrated children’s books past. It’s far from flavorless, but the flavor is more Neil Gaiman-meets-C.S. Lewis than The Decemberists in novel form.
The setting is the book’s most distinctive element. In Meloy’s modern-day Portland hometown, a young girl named Prue sees her 1-year-old brother Mac carried off by crows. She attempts to rescue him, and ultimately winds up across the Willamette River in an area marked on maps as the Impassible Wilderness, roughly corresponding with the real-world city’s Forest Park. (The historical Pittock Mansion makes a notable appearance.) Wildwood comes alive when Meloy describes the Pacific Northwest environs, which feature the detail of personal observation, and the dark mysteries that the woods have held in fairy tales throughout the ages. They also feature a secret society of talking animals, an evil human sorceress, an animal king, and a vivid but small-scale adventure. The echoes of Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are extensive and unmistakable—particularly when the sorceress, Alexandra, cozens up to Prue’s classmate Curtis, seducing him with flattery and a position at the head of her coyote army, while she plans a horrible blood sacrifice. But Wildwood also recalls Robin Hood, The Wind In The Willows, Labyrinth, and Gaiman’s Coraline. That’s the novel’s major drawback: Little of it feels fresh or original, and the parts that do—the story of Alexandra’s son, for instance, or the details of the sacrifice she’s planning—are underserved by a story that focuses more on description and action than on developing its characters.
That said, Meloy excels at both description and action, so he’s playing to his strengths. For all its 541-page bulk, Wildwood is a quick, compelling read, smoothly written with a perfect balance of middle-school-age-appropriate simplicity and more challenging writing that makes the book adult-accessible. While Meloy never lingers over his darker themes, the content is adult-tinged as well, with intimations of torture, death, and political evils, from bureaucratic inefficiency to streamlined fascism. Color plates and inset black-and-white illustrations by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis—The Decemberists’ longtime cover artist—further shape the book as a quaintly traditional throwback, an iconic children’s novel that embraces fantasy adventure rather than modern dystopian coming-of-age anguish. Wildwood is billed as The Wildwood Chronicles, Book 1, and Meloy is planning a multi-year Decemberists hiatus while he works on the follow-ups. He already has a confident, capable prose voice, at a level that often escapes author-hyphenates. With any luck, his follow-ups will keep that level of skill in play, while bringing his unique sensibility to bear as well. The guttersnipes await.