This is the second book in a new fantasy trilogy (the first was simply “Wildwood”) by the singer/songwriter of the group “The Decemberists,” illustrated by his wife. While they do at times hearken back to classic fantasy tales, they also mix in modern elements in a way that makes them feel fresh, a trend I like. The illustrations also have a fresh approach, simple and stylized in some ways, but with lots of detail in others. They make a great addition to the story. Colin and Carson live in Portland, Oregon, and have crafted a fantasy version of that city’s Forest Park for their series, The Impassable Wilderness, a large woods filled with magic, talking animals, people from old tales like a Bandit King and his band, as well as dangerous shape-shifting assassins and an underground mole kingdom. Magic keeps the population of nearby Portland from noticing or getting into this place, though there are some who desperately want to, as well as some people from Portland who are trapped in the edges desperately trying to get out.
Prue McKeel is a teenage girl we met in the first book who has some Wildwood blood in her, and a little subtle magic that allowed her to enter the wood to rescue her baby brother, along with her friend Curtis. Prue is back home in mundane Portland, trying to fit in at school, while Curtis chose to stay in Wildwood, joining the Bandit King’s band. Both are beset by new trouble in this book, with Prue attacked by one of those shape-shifting assassins, and Curtis dealing with new threats inside Wildwood. They are soon both back in the struggles of Wildwood, and eventually together again. We also follow the sisters of Curtis who are placed in a horrible child-labor factory masquerading as an orphanage at the edge of Wildwood whose owner is trying desperately to break through the magic barrier into the wood so he can pillage its natural resources. Then there’s the political struggle for control of the many diverse areas inside the magic barrier that has made some outcasts and others powerful.
This is a long book, but the kind where length means lots of entertaining reading. The characters are well-developed and fun to read about, full of good and bad qualities like real children/people, even if some are animals, and there are lots of them. The plot is complex but satisfying, and the adventure engrossing. The only down side to this second book in the trilogy is that it leads directly to the third volume, “Wildwood Imperium,” without very much of a satisfying conclusion in this book. I’ll be reading that soon.