Book Review: Under Wildwood, by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis

I loved Wildwood, the first entry in the Wildwood Chronicles, so I was excited when Under Wildwood came out. I was expecting another entry in this visually and linguistically rich series, and I wasn’t disappointed, but I also wasn’t completely blown away by this book, which felt a little more…rushed than the first, and more like something trying to set up a sequel than a text intended to stand alone on its own right.

Wildwood worked as a standalone book that you could read alone and enjoy on those merits alone; while the ending was kind of bittersweet, watching Curtis and Prue torn between Wildwood and the Outside, it was also a satisfying resolution to the story. It was not a rosy, perfect, happy ending, and I liked that about it.

In Under Wildwood, Prue finds herself back in Wildwood, where she embarks on a quest to save Wildwood from instability and strife that threaten to tear it apart. Meanwhile, Curtis is caught between his loyalties to the bandits and Prue, while his two sisters find themselves trapped in an orphanage in the Industrial Wastes where they’re used as slave labour to make machine parts.

With a narrative switching between Wildwood, the Outside, and the shimmering border between the two, Under Wildwood incorporates more points of view than Wildwood, and the technique works well within the context of the story to drive it and keep me interested. I loved the embedded commentary on capitalism and industry that was wrapped up in the story of Curtis’ sisters, and I was intrigued by Curtis and Prue’s adventures underground. I like that the world of Wildwood is expanding as we read further and further into the Chronicles, and we’re learning more about the people and creatures who inhabit it even as the stakes increase for everyone involved.

Of particular interest was the darker turn in the story, making Wildwood a much more sinister place. Wildwood already went to some pretty dark places, what with ivy eating the Dowager Governess and all, but Under Wildwood went darker, creating a world where hands are chopped off and eyes are plucked out in the course of business, and a place where children are enslaved in a machine shop and used in cruel experimentation. We are definitely starting to push out of the middle grade range here and into young adult, because there is no veneer here. While we don’t get graphic details, the risks for our characters are definitely very real, and their emotional development is richer and more complex.

I especially loved Esben and the interesting things he raises, as a character. The premise of talking animals with humanlike intelligence and information exchange is common in these kinds of novels, but Esben makes a conscious choice to turn away from that, living with humans and concealing his true identity. There was something kind of heartbreaking about the scene where he talked about how he just wanted to be a bear for a while, forcing Prue to question why she was so determined to track him down, and whether it was really the right thing to do. I expect we will be seeing more of him in the next book, and he’s my personal favourite new character, so I’m excited about that.

The illustrations were glorious, as before, and the text was luscious, though not quite as quick and nimble as it was in Wildwood. It felt much more hurried, like the means to an end rather than a true storytelling narrative. In parts, it felt like Meloy had taken the time to really revel in the story and take some time to look around and appreciate the sights. In others, it seemed more like the book was grinding through; it was still filled with magic, and it still had a spark, but it wasn’t quite all there, and it made the narrative kind of draggy at points.

Unlike Wildwood, this text was also obviously setting up for a sequel, rather painfully so, actually. While there is a resolution, there’s also a cliffhanger that’s clearly intended to entice readers into picking up the next book when it comes out. This is an established trend in middle grade and young adult fiction, and it’s increasing these days. Some writers do it artfully; they create texts that both stand alone and create intriguing storylines that make you want to read more, rather than making you feel like you’ve been tricked into buying half a book.

In a sense, Under Wildwood feels like an overlong ‘part one’ that could have been edited down much more tightly and, you know, completed with some additional chapters to take us through the natural trajectory of Prue’s journey. Wildwood is a fascinating place and the premise of the series is great; you don’t need to break up individual stories over the course of two books to keep people reading, and there should be lots of room to play with new narratives and characters. As it is, I just felt rather disappointed and irritated with the ending of Under Wildwood, instead of delighted with the feeling of being swept away on an exciting journey.

Overall, Under Wildwood is still an excellent read, but it’s not as stellar as Wildwood was, and it didn’t quite get me as excited. I’m not making an anti-recommendation, but I wouldn’t say it’s something to urgently add to your to-read list, either. It just doesn’t quite pack the same punch as the first entry in the series, and it could have benefited from being given more time in development before being rushed to print.