The wood sucks at the mind, it sucks out the dreams.
Many times I don’t like sequels because there’s nothing new to learn. Authors tend to give us all of their world-building in the first novel, so I’m often bored by a sequel. But Lavondyss blew my mind. It is, I have no doubt, one of the best fantasy novels ever written.
In Mythago Wood, Harry Keeton entered the forest with Steven and he’s been there for years. We got the sense back then that Harry had some secret personal purpose for going in — it wasn’t just to help Steven. His sister Tallis remembers him leaving when she was four years old. Her parents are distressed and assume he’s dead. When Tallis hears what she believes is a communication from Harry and starts interacting with the wood, her parents think she’s gone batty. But Tallis is determined to bring Harry home.
Lavondyss may be the perfect fantasy novel. First of all, it’s written in Robert Holdstock’s beautiful style. I tend to be picky and demanding about style. A good story will not do it for me if the writing is pedestrian. It doesn’t have to be poetic, but it needs to be interesting and creative — not just, as we say, “serviceable.” Robert Holdstock’s writing style, at least in these novels, is similar to Patricia McKillip‘s: straightforward, but kind of dreamy, too. To me, it’s perfect.
Secondly, Lavondyss made me think. It was complex and convoluted, and I didn’t even know how complex it was until I got to the end. At that point I had to go back and re-read several passages so I could try to understand what had happened. It’s not that it wasn’t related effectively, but rather that Mr. Holdstock does not spoon-feed the reader. He does not divulge everything we want to know when we want to know it. We’re given hints and impressions (and maybe even some false information from unreliable characters?) that must be accumulated and assembled. My brain had trouble bringing it all together in the end. What, exactly, is Lavondyss? Why do the mythagos travel there? What drove Harry into the forest? Who is he there? How is he related to the mythagos? How do Mr. Williams and Wynne-Jones fit in? Most importantly: what is the nature of myth, story, and legend, and where do they come from? (There are lots of other questions I could ask, but I’d be giving too much away.) Instead of leaving me frustrated, I am fascinated, and motivated to find the answers.
Lastly, the story made me feel. The characters are endearing and I experienced their joy, pain, hope, and hopelessness. The ending was sad, happy, chilling, shocking, wonderful, and inconclusive. It stayed with me for days.
I am still confused about a lot of stuff that I was hoping would be cleared up, but I’m happily confused. This is a story that requires a re-read in order to appreciate its richness. I’ve jotted down some notes — stuff I learned in the parts of Lavondyss that I re-read. I will have to go back to Mythago Wood and then read further in the series. I look forward to it and I can’t wait to spend more time in, and learn more about, Rhyhope Wood.
I have a bad habit of overusing the word “haunting.” Ergo, I worry that when I use it here, it won’t pack the punch it really should. Let me just say, then, that when I say Lavondyss is haunting, I mean it. This book settled into my bones like a hard winter. It will stay in my mind forever. I feel like I’ve lived a whole second life by reading it, and I’ll probably read it again at my earliest convenience just to see if I catch anything I missed the first time.
I had trouble getting into the previous book, Mythago Wood, but I was glad I read it and am now even gladder, as it provides lots of background that helps make sense of Lavondyss. Lavondyss feels more like a “straight” fantasy novel, though; while there is still the idea that people create mythagos with their minds and that many of the book’s mythagos are personally tied to its central character, to me it feels that this time the story and the world stand more on their own and have more of a life outside of the character’s psychology. I feel less like I’m reading a slightly veiled book on Jung and Freud, and more like I’ve been sucked into a seductive, visceral fairy tale. I’m yet again reminded of a work of nonfiction — this time Robert Graves’ The White Goddess — but this time the analytical part of my mind was content to curl up by the fire and let Robert Holdstock spin his tale.
In Mythago Wood, Steven Huxley’s traveling companion was Harry Keeton. Lavondyss centers on Harry’s younger sister, Tallis. Born when Harry was already a grown man, Tallis only knew her brother briefly, but she and her family are haunted by his disappearance. Tallis is an uncanny, precocious girl with an instinctive gift for magic, and it’s simply enchanting to follow along as she learns the ways of the wood and its spirits. Eventually, she journeys into the wood on a quest to find her missing brother. What happens after that, I won’t spoil, since I want you to be able to discover it for yourself. It’s an enthralling story, though, sometimes sad, sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary as hell. There are layers within layers, timelines looping around themselves in ways that don’t become evident until later, and an ambiguous ending.
I love ambiguous endings, and I hate them. I love them and hate them because they stick with me, nagging at my brain, never letting me forget them. I lay awake for hours after finishing Lavondyss, prodding at the ending in my mind, wondering whether the “happier” interpretation of the ending might actually be a sadder one. I simultaneously wished Holdstock had clarified it and was very glad he hadn’t. It’s more memorable this way, and fitting for the Mythago Wood universe.
Lavondyss has everything I love in a book: compelling characters, vivid prose, mythic elements, art-as-magic, complex character relationships, and just the right amount of ambiguity. It’s a fairy tale, the old kind with blood and revenge and jaw dropping wonder. It’s the kind of book that, when you finish, you feel the urge to flip right back to the first page and start over. (The only reason I didn’t was that it was the middle of the night. Blasted day job…)
The Mythago Wood Cycle (Ryhope Wood) — (1984-2009) The Bone Forest is a collection of short stories; Some are related to The Mythago Wood Cycle. Publisher: The mystery of Ryhope Wood, Britain’s last fragment of primeval forest, consumed George Huxley’s entire long life. Now, after his death, his sons have taken up his work. But what they discover is numinous and perilous beyond all expectation. For the Wood, larger inside than out, is a labyrinth full of myths come to life, “mythagos” that can change you forever. A labyrinth where love and beauty haunt your dreams… and may drive you insane.