© estate of Robert Holdstock, cover art © Larry Rostant.
The first book in this series, “Mythago Wood,” blew me away with its rich stew of mythic figures come to life in an ancient forest in rural England, much larger on the inside than it seems from the outside, as well as much older, deeper and stranger. “Lavondyss” is nearly as good, which makes it quite excellent!
The book is divided into two halves; the first following a young girl, Tallis Keeton, growing up near the Ryhope Estate, which holds the Wood in question. She is full of the kind of powers that would have branded her a witch in times past, and seems to draw all kinds of magic out of the forest, even though she can’t actually enter it herself. She wants to — her brother disappeared there, and she wants to find him — but it isn’t until the end of the first part of the book that she finally penetrates that mysterious place. Meanwhile, she meets and befriends a character who is clearly the classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of my favorites (loved that!) and finds some help from her dad and the gardener at their farm. But it’s some strange women/spirits from the forest that give her the most guidance, teaching Tallis to make special masks and dolls that allow her to access her powers.
In the second half, Tallis is swept away into the wood by a handsome young man on horseback who may be related to another man, a scientist named Wynn-Jones, who disappeared into the forest in the first book of the series. Tallis and Scathatch each want to penetrate to the secret wintery heart of the forest for their own reasons, and on the way they do meet and are joined by Wynn-Jones, now a very old man acting as a shaman for a primitive tribe in the forest. The plot gets quite complicated in the second half, and at times is somewhat mysterious and confusing, but everything does get explained eventually, and the few weeks Tallis expected to be in the Wood turn into a lifetime, as it seems to be for everyone from our mundane world who enters.
Though the second half did drag a bit here and there, in general I loved this book. The layers of myth and magic are many, and fascinating. The characters are somewhat plot-driven by their various quests and stories, but still appealing for the most part, and the writing is quite good. What this series reminds me of is a somewhat more modern version of George MacDonald’s “Phantastes,” another favorite, perhaps informed by Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” It’s a very tasty stew for fantasy fans, and I’ll certainly be looking for and reading the rest of the series.