Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Review: The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

In my own experience, I find it very easy to see just how our ancestors came up with some pretty crazy ideas to put in the myths and legends they passed down. Just spend some time out in the wild – some real time in real wild. No electronic gizmos, no motorized vehicles, no electric lights, no walls. Then do it alone. Even being the rational, modern creatures that we are with science and connectivity to the entire world at our disposal, being alone in wilderness quickly conjures up some really crazy (and often terrifying) ideas. For me, if you are looking for real magic in the world, this is it. In a genre that is, after you strip away all the extraneous, simply about magic, I’m amazed that there are not more books that capture this magic.

Writers like Terri Windling and Charles de Lint call this flavor of SFF mythic fiction, where it was once lumped in with urban fantasy and now is somewhat orphaned and forgotten as urban fantasy has moved in a different direction. Most often it seems people think of deep woodlands, faerie and Celtic lore when presented with mythic fiction. But in The Wood Wife by Terri Winding (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) it’s the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona.

It’s easy to fall in love with the desert. The land is wide-open, the flora is unique with a tendency to be strangely aggressive and the fauna is terrifyingly wondrous when you actually see it. I’ve lived in Arizona for 14 years and I originally moved here because I had fallen for the desert on a previous visit. Being a geologist only adds to my appreciation while providing me with even more excuses to spend time in the wild and alien world that is the desert. And it’s this sort of personal connection that mythic fiction makes special – because the best of it does connect. Only it’s rarely surficially evident, it’s a deep, nearly subconscious connection that lingers, dwells and rises unexpectedly.

In The Wood Wife a struggling poet colloquially known as Black Maggie inherits the house of a pier that she has only corresponded with through letters. Shocked and surprised, she visits her new house in the desert east of Tucson, Arizona with thoughts of writing a biography only to discover that the land she now owns comes with other houses and the tenants that live there. It’s an eclectic bunch – artists, animal rescuers, a mechanic and gardener and a handyman musician who live in their little patch of desert just out of reach of the city below. A place in the heart of the Sonoran desert where the spirits of the desert take shape, come indoors and play their games with humans. A place that Maggie isn’t prepared for, and perhaps a place that isn’t prepared for Maggie.

The Wood Wife captures the magic of the desert I love. It showcases myths rooted in Native American traditions that are so often and so sadly unknown to those of us who now live on lands they once inhabited. It hints at the tragic destruction that urbanization and a fast-growing population has wrought on Arizona, a tragic destruction that lies close to my own heart due to the many ways it works into my own life. The Wood Wife is a love story – in more ways than the traditional. But mostly it’s the journey of Maggie as she discovers the past and finally settles on a future for herself. And the desert dominates it all.

Before I even started The Wood Wife I knew I’d like it. And it was everything I hoped for. But it’s not perfect. As magical as it is, the simple truth is that I’ve seen it done better. Charles de Lint wrote a similar book, Medicine Road (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, myreview) that captures the magic of the region just a bit better, if in a different way. The similarity and comparison is unfortunate since both are great books and should be judged on their own. I’m not quite sure what it is that created a deeper connection with Medicine Road, though I think it may be music versus poetry. In Medicine Road, the magic of the desert is revealed in many ways, though music is most often at the heart of it. In The Wood Wife, the magic of the desert is revealed in many ways, though most often through poetry and to a slightly lesser degree, painting. I suppose I have a deeper connection to music than poetry, which doesn’t surprise me since I’ve never been very into poetry.

The Wood Wife is unfortunately a book that has been left behind, like much of mythic fiction. It’s often hard for this sort of book to work in the modern world of the internet, science, urbanization and the lost of wonder and magic that comes with such things. Some of us are lucky enough to recognize the deep connection it can make and I encourage all to try – whether it’s Charles de Lint, Robert Holdstock, TerriWinding or another1. The Wood Wife is the desert come alive – it is the fictional magic that can help you see the real magic alive in the world. 

1 I find the use of links in this part of the review terribly ironic, and I use the word terribly for its many potential interpretations. I wanted to find a clever or at least intelligent way to say as much in the review, and this is the best I could come up with.


Kelly L. said...

It's sad that this book has been kind of "left behind"--I remember really loving it when I read it, probably about ten years ago.

Tom said...

But The Wood Wife came out before Medicine Road (the first book in 1996 and the second book in 2004), and Charles de Lint has said in interviews how inspired he's been by Terri Windling's desert art and fiction. So I think you have to take into account how much the urban fantasy/contemporary fantasy field evolved in the eight years between the two books before you make negative comparisons between them. Personally I like them both for different reasons. De Lint is an amazing storyteller who creates characters so real you feel you've always known them. Windling is an incredible prose stylist with delicious language and a knowledge of myth second to none. Both are great books.

Neth said...

@Tom: I really don't think the publicaton dates are relevant to how I felt about The Wood Wife vs. Medicine Road. Both are good, I really like both. But I like Medicine Road more. I think it's pretty clear in the review.


Wood Wife is one of my favourites. I also enjoyed Someplace to be Flying and Forests of the Heart for the mythology.


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