The third and possibly final outing of Colin Meloy’s Wildwood books (we only say possibly because (a) we’d like more of them and (b) one of the villains manages to scarper into the sunset at the end of this book so there is, you know, scope for more), Wildwood Imperium, is as bold, as ambitious and as fun (it’s sometimes important for books to be fun, adults can forget this) as the two previous outings (Wildwood and Under Wildwood), that does everything a good end-to-the-trilogy should do whilst at the same time going off in several diverting tangents, a great many of which recall nothing so much as the films of Wes Anderson (and if there is another book mainly intended for children that manages to synthesis both the hilarity of The Fantastic Mr Fox and the narrative sophistication of The Grand Budapest Hotel this year – well, we’ll consider ourselves very lucky readers indeed).
There is, however, one caveat: Meloy affords his readers (and we imagine the majority of these readers to be children although there may be a bunch of grown-up Decemberist fan hipsters in among the kids – the caveat still applies to the grown-ups too) a certain intelligence and each of the Wildwood books are twisty and turny and filled (like crammed holiday suitcases) full of characters and adventures and thoughts (Meloy cleverly explores what happens to Wildwood post-revolution and, without so much as mentioning Arab Spring, we see that good will does not often lead to good Government). If you are anything like me, however, you may have read other books between each of these books, other books that may get between you and your memories of the previous books. Given that Meloy for the most part eschews catching you up on what you might have forgotten (JK Rowling was always a dab hand at this in the Harry Potter books), you’re left to catch yourself up. This might be offputting to some people. It might even be tricky for readers who feel a respect to Meloy for not doing the old catch-up thing. It still takes a bit of time to reacquaint yourself with the Wildwood world. Now that the whole trilogy has been released, the books can be read as they should be – back to back, splurging like a DVD boxset.
But to the book itself! Prue, the erstwhile heroine of the first two books, is back at home with her bemused family who are coming to terms with the talking bear she just so happens to have brought with her (a bear named Esben, you may remember, with hooks for hands). Prue and Esben are recuperating ahead of a return to Wildwood, their plan to bring Alexei, the mechanical boy prince, back to life. Elsewhere, however, in Wildwood itself, a new character, Zita, the May Queen no less, a young girl coming to terms with the death of her own mother some months previous, takes it on herself to plot some mischief: mischief that involves the ghost of Alexandra, the terrible villainous laid to rest at the climax of the first book. And that’s not all – Curtis (you remember Curtis from the first two books? he’s missing for much of this one)’s two sisters, Rachel and Elsie, last seen escaping from a rather horrible children’s home, are now shacked up with a host of other orphans who collectively call themselves the Unadoptables. The Unadoptables form an alliance with a group known as the Chapeux Noirs (you can see Carson Ellis’ lovely illustration above) to try and take down the figurehead of the large corporations planning to monetise Wildwood, and in doing so rescue their friend Martha and Carol Grod, the old blind man with wooden eyes. All of which, as complicated as it might sound if you’re not familiar with these books, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Before we’re done, we’re introduced to the Synod (a body not completely unlike the Faith Militant from George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons), a religious group busy brainwashing the inhabitants of the various realms via a concoction of green sap loosed from a rather special tree, witness a near riot when Prue attempts to rally the troops to her particular cause, and worry something terrible as vast rivers of ivy threaten to overtake – well, pretty much everywhere. There are mystics and talking animals, just as in the previous books, but Meloy seems to have ramped up the anti-establishment rhetoric somewhat this time around. Here is one of the Chapeaux Noir explaining how he came to be a part of the band:
“…in the detonation that brought my precious research laboratories and life’s work literally to dust, I saw my life anew. I saw the hypocrisy, the cynicism, the poison of the industrial mind-set. The destructive power of capitalism. It all became very clear. And so, that very day, as I escaped with my cohort into the very sewers that we had built for our creation, I swore that I would devote the rest of my life to the tearing down of the institutions that built me.”
These all feel like tremendously healthy seeds to be sowing in the mindsets of children! Meloy also eschews the more traditional feelgood Hollywood endings which makes the climax all the more resonant (he doesn’t go all-out, let’s make that clear, he isn’t a monster, but the climax to the trilogy has a bittersweet note that is all the more affecting for not entirely tying up all the lose ends – like just where does the young leader of the mystics actually disappear to). We should also, of course, again, make reference to Carson Ellis’ delightful illustrations (with only the smallest of cow-eyed glances towards Cannongate for running the full page illustrations in black and white in the paperback). Meloy and Ellis are a cunning team and we hope there are more books to come, irrespective of whether they inhabit Wildwood, Portland or somewhere else altogether!
Any Cop?: A satisfying resolution then, for the most part, and the reader is left with the hope that Meloy won’t just abandon the old books lark in favour of his band (as much as we like his band).