Breathe easy: the second instalment of Colin Meloy’s Wildwood Chronicles is every bit as funny, thrilling, beautifully written and illustrated as its predecessor. What’s more, whilst it still retains nods and winks to any number of other children’s books (Lemony Snicket, His Dark Materials etc), it is coming into its own as a story in its own right, with its own moral compass, its own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, its own narrative imperative, its own weltanschaung (and yes, it’s even good enough to warrant a bit of pretentious academic German).
Pru, you’ll remember, has left Wildwood to return home to her family – and she is not entirely happy and not entirely the girl she was (she no longer cares too heartily about doing well at school). Curtis, meanwhile, has forsaken family in order to join a band of robber bandits in the heart of Wildwood. This being a version of real life, we learn that Curtis’ family have come apart at the hinges – his mother and father are heading off to Turkey chasing a misguided sniff of Curtis and his sisters have been sent, temporarily, to the Unthank home for wayward children – which is, of course, a diabolical place run by a former Ukrainian film star and a monomaniacal machine parts manufacturer who is keen to get his grubby mitts on Wildwood, if only he can find a way through the magic that keeps people like him out. All is not well in Wildwood either – the revolution that Pru and Curtis helped lead is foundering, as many revolutions do, a dark culture of reporting and disappearances growing day by day. Malevolent forces want Pru and Curtis dead. A vicious kitsune, a sort of woman-fox hybrid, is dispatching people left, right and centre.
Meloy has fashioned a hugely compelling page turner here, the sort of chunky fare that a hundred million Harry Potter fans should be queuing up for (kids and adults). He has learned at the feet of Dahl that children’s books need genuine terror (people die in Wildwood) and peril (you’ll be reading the climactic battle between Pru and the kitsune through split fingers). The best thing about the Wildwood Chronicles, though, is the delicate and skilful path Meloy treads between the mundane and the fantastical, which somehow recalls both Eggers’ The Wild Things and also Breaking Bad (both Pru and Curtis feel like real kids and their reactions to the fantastical have a disarming normality – eschewing the kind of ‘jolly hockeysticks’ acceptance you get in the Harry Potter books). Both Wildwood and Under Wildwood also have a refreshing post Occupy Wall Street feel (you can imagine this book being read to kids sat in tents while police whale on peaceful protesters just outside the tentflap) – big business hovers at the periphery of the book, a negative, malign force just waiting to shape the world to its own destructive ends.
Under Wildwood also embraces its position as the second book in an ongoing series – where Wildwood had to end in a fashion that suggested, ‘okay, if there is not going to be another Wildwood book, this one stands alone’, Under Wildwood ends with our heroes divided, battered, neither entirely victorious not entirely defeated – and the spectrum of the book spectacularly broadened to include a whole raft of new characters we’re sure to hear from again. Thankfully, however, enough of substance occurs within the book (it does run to over 500 pages after all) that it doesn’t suffer from the kind of WTF-itis that Lemony Snicket’s blink and you’ll miss it puzzle-a-rama Who Could That Be at this Hour? did. And I haven’t even mentioned Carson Ellis’ tremendous illustrations which feel like a sort of visual hug even as they bind the books together like comforting glue. All told, then, Under Wildwood cements the pleasures to be had from this series of books and makes this an essential treat.
Any Cop?: Meloy (who is the hipster’s hipster if a recent episode of The Simpsons is anything to go by) is a clever dude and the Wildwood Chronicles are rapidly becoming an essential annual pleasure. Roll on the third book (to be called Heir of Wildwood if Amazon speaks the truth), we say. It can’t come fast enough for us.