Sometimes it’s hard to separate our feelings for a book from the setting in which we read it. Somewhere along the way of my first backpacking trip through Great Britain, I managed to obtain a copy of William Horwood’s Duncton Wood. A purchase at Waterstone’s, a swap with another backpacker, a left-behind-for-anyone copy on a hostel table; I have no idea how or why I picked it up. But I was quickly glad I did and once I’d finished it, immediately found the ensuing books as well, buying them one by one and leaving finished copies behind me like a trail of bread crumbs (first rule of backpacking: never carry what you don’t absolutely have to). When I got home, I re-collected the series and it still sits on my shelf, my love for it an inseparable combination of its literary quality and its physical associations with two of the best months of my life. So it was with no little excitement that I picked up William Horwood’s newest work, Hyddenworld: Spring, the start to another fantasy series. To be sure, it’d be unfair to expect Hyddenworld: Spring to recapture that same sense of magic I had, reading Duncton Wood while strolling through the English countryside, and I knew, going in, that I’d have to temper that desire. However, I have to admit that, even with lowered expectations, I still found Spring a disappointment.
Hyddenworld: Spring is, as the name suggests, a whole other world hidden within our own, populated by “Hydden”, who are roughly three feet in size and make use of our world’s items, remaining unseen due to humans’ unwillingness to see what “shouldn’t” be. And so they ride beneath our trains, live beneath our cities (in this case Birmingham), and traverse our sewers and roads. I confess, this opening premise was one of my first and largest problems with the book; I never quite bought it. I can buy Hobbits having a trick of moving stealthily so it’s difficult to see them, but there’s always the possibility and for them, that fear. And they still get caught. I can buy Borrowers being so small that we wouldn’t catch them behind a book, but they still tend to come out only when Big People aren’t around for fear of being seen. And they still get caught. But here, not only do the Hydden not hide or come out only when “it’s safe,” they walk right by us, can even wave and yell and jump up and down. I needed a bit more than humans’ “willful ignorance” to buy this, and it was a constant nagging distraction no matter how often I tried to push it aside.
Every now and then, one is born among the Hydden as a “giant-born,” and their births usually foreshadow great upheavals. In this case, the giant-born is Jack, who is sent into the human world (there are gates and portals — sometimes simple gates, other times henges) to protect him from those who wish to do him harm. There he becomes connected to Katherine, a young girl who may or may not become a Shield Maiden, a mythic figure of huge importance in the Hydden world. Along with Jack and Katherine, major characters include the Hydden Bedywn Stort — a scatter-minded genius; Pike — a terse warrior with a soft heart; Brief — the Master Scrivener; Brunte — an ambitious Fyrd (who rule the Hydden world); and the human Arthur Foale, who has long sought the Hydden and has recently disappeared.
Early on we’re set up for a major quest tale about retrieving Spring, a missing gem in a legendary magical amulet worn by the Peace-Weaver, whose stones must be recovered if the Earth is to be saved (mostly, it seems, from the greedy short-sighted environmental depredations of humanity). Other plot questions abound: What happened to Arthur Foale? Who and what is Jack? How is Katherine connected to the Shield Maiden myth? Why are the Fyrd seeking both Jack and Katherine? What do Brief and Stort know that they aren’t saying (it’s obviously something). What does Brunte plan? And a few others as well.
Outside of the basic premise, the other major problem I had with the story was simply pace: it was far too slow. I have no problem with long books. I recently embarked on a reread of Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN series, where each book is between 700 and 1000 pages. Bleak House, at nearly 1000 pages, is one of my favorite novels. So I can do long. I can also do quiet and character-driven (as in Robin Hobb’s latest duology). But Spring, while somewhat long (nearly 500 pages) and mostly character-driven (a few chase scenes) was just too slow for me. Not the leisurely enjoyable, revel-in-the-voice slow, but instead the more maddening this-should-have-been-150-pages-shorter slow.
Pace can sometimes be overcome by character. But here again, Spring fell short, as I just couldn’t find myself caring much about most of those involved, including unfortunately the two main characters, Jack and Katherine. Both are relatively passive throughout — done to rather than doing — and both seem to accept way too easily this whole new worldview they’re presented with. They are also both pretty slimly developed, save a few repeated shorthand characterizations: each one’s unstated and confusing feelings for the other, Jack’s self-consciousness about some burn scars, and a few others. The Hydden are not really better developed (many can be summed up in a simple phrase, such as “absent-minded genius” or “gruff fighter”) but are at least more engaging: Pike and Stort are both endearingly likable in their roles, and Brunte’s ambition and desire for vengeance is darkly compelling. Perhaps the most original and enthralling characters are the figurehead ruler of Brum (the city under Birmingham) and his chef, Festoon and Parlance respectively, whose dialogue and relationship bring a much-needed spark of life to the novel. Unfortunately, though, the two don’t show up until the last 50 pages or so.
Finally, despite the 500 pages and despite spending so much time with Hydden or in the Hydden city (much of the last third or so takes place there), I can’t really say I have a strong sense of their world or society.
In short, this was a real struggle of a read and if I were not reviewing it or had I not so fallen in love with a group of moles a few decades ago on my way to Stonehenge or Avesbury, I almost certainly would have put it down a third of the way in. I know from experience that if it takes me more than two days to finish a sub-500 page book, I’m not really enjoying it. Spring took me a week to get through. Honestly, it feels a bit of betrayal to say I don’t recommend it, but at this point I just can’t see how to. However, I’ll pick up book two and let you know if the story improves, and I’ll leave you with the recommendation to read Duncton Wood instead. I owe Mr. Horwood at least that much.
HyddenWorld — (2009-2013) Publisher: The adventure of a lifetime is just beginning… It has lain lost and forgotten for fifteen hundred years in the ancient heartland of England — a scrap of glass and metal melded by fierce fire. Itis the lost core of a flawless Sphere made by the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon Craeft Lords in memory of the one he loved. Her name was Spring and, contained in the very heart of this work is a spark from the Fires of Creation. But while humans have lost their belief in such things, the Hydden, little people existing on the borders of our world, have not. Breaking the silence of centuries they send one of their own, a young boy, Jack, to live among humans in the hope that he may one day find what has been lost for so long. His journey leads him to Katherine, a girl he rescues from a tragic accident — it’s a meeting that will change everything. Only one person understands the historic significance of what is happening. Disgraced astral-archaeologist Arthur Foale has long believed that the myths and legends of past times have a root in reality. His disappearance sets Jack and Katherine’s feet on a path that will lead them to an adventure and a world beyond their imagination. It is only through their voyage into the dangerous Hyddenworld that they will realize their destiny, find love and complete the great quest that will save both their worlds from destruction. Their journey begins with SPRING…