Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region

Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region - Robert Holdstock 2.5 - 3 stars (downgraded from a previous 5)

I am not quite sure where my previous 5-star rating for this book came from. I love Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, but on this re-read I found the second book of the Mythago cycle to be a sl-o-o-o-w burn which unfortunately never really seemed to ignite. I may simply not have been in the mood for this book at this time, but I think it’s more than that. There are significant pacing issues that drag the book down and Holdstock’s desire to both go deeper into the meaning of Ryhope Wood and also maintain an air of mystery and the unknown for as long as possible seem to work against each other.

Instead of being a direct sequel to [b:Mythago Wood|8890494|Mythago Wood (Mythago Wood 1)|Robert Holdstock||121534] we are told the story of Tallis Keeton, the half-sister of a secondary character from the first book (Harry Keeton), who seems to have been marked in some way by the magical wood that swallowed the Huxley family years before. Eventually we also come to meet Edward Wynne-Jones, the former collaborator of George Huxley who was also tangentially mentioned in the first volume, but no resolution to the stories of Christian and Stephen Huxley is to be found. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I don’t think Tallis was a strong enough character to support the book (at least not the ponderous first half of it) and ultimately I think that the book Holdstock gives us ends up being all build-up with relatively little pay-off. There doesn’t even seem to be any real action until more than half-way through the book and even then calling it ‘action’ is a bit of a misnomer. Granted Holdstock is writing a more cerebral take on fantasy (literally so since the wood itself, the main magical element of the tales, is all about the manifestation of the myth-images from our collective unconscious), but much of what we are told is not new for any reader coming to the story from volume one and the story of Tallis’ childhood spent under the ever increasing sway of the wood starts to drag as Holdstock dwells on far too much detail with significant repetition. Alas Holdstock seemed to be trying to structure the story as though it was a mystery with a gradual (and I mean *very* gradual) build-up of tension and parsing out of knowledge. Unfortunately a lot of the mystery just wasn’t present for me (perhaps because I was a re-reader, but also I think because if you’ve read the first volume you *know* what the wood is about so a lot of the mysterious elements and slow build seemed highly unnecessary). In the end I think that half the time spent showing us Tallis’ childhood could have been cut/reduced without any reduction in the facts learned.

In a nutshell we witness the birth and first years of Harry Keeton’s half-sister Tallis who grows up on a farm located near the mysterious Ryhope Wood under the shadow of Harry’s strange disappearance when she was only four years old. Having read the first book we know where it is that Harry went, but Tallis only slowly comes to understand this as she is apparently taken under the wing of tutelary mythagos and ‘trained’ by them to become something of an avatar for the forces of the wood (or at least for some of them, the eldritch presences spawned by the wood apparently always being in conflict). This then spins out into a tale of tragic love, divided allegiances, and the quest for the mythical Heart of the Wood, where all of the characters hope that their desires will be granted and questions answered. Of course it’s not as easy as that and the true nature of the wood’s heart, which mirrors the deepest and darkest levels of the human psyche, may be much more perilous than anyone imagines.

One other thing that really bugged me, but that turned out to be more of a nit-pick in the long run, was the characterization of Tallis’ parents. It revolved around their utter powerlessness in the face of Tallis’ growing strangeness and apparent inability to do anything at all resembling a responsible parental action. This is an ever-present danger when using very young characters as your heroes, especially when you are not writing a YA novel. In a YA story I might be more willing to accept that the genre itself demands that the young child-hero Tallis have parents who are little more than feckless spectators whose useless obstructions are easily overcome. In a novel meant for adults, however, I would generally expect a somewhat more responsible, and conceivably effective (or at least proactive), response from her parents. Instead we see them apparently accept the changes and behaviour in her that, seen from the outside and with the lens of any ‘normal’ parent, would seem to be a descent into psychosis and mental illness without interfering in her ‘adventures’ and it rang particularly false. Given the fact that her father had already lost one child to Ryhope is it really likely that he will sit idly by while his daughter also seems to come under the sway of the wood with little more than a feeble complaints and disagreements? Granted that her father’s father was known to have a strange relationship with the wood and perhaps her family is thus more inclined to accept it as something other than mental illness, but I still had my suspension of disbelief strongly strained (perhaps due to the fact that I am now a parent) by the thought that any parent would let their child freely fall into the strange behaviours that the wood prompts in Tallis with little more than a concerned look and occasional ‘disagreements’.

So a fair amount of disappointment for me on this re-read, though I will readily admit that Holdstock still manages to work with his mythic material in an effective and fascinating way. The resolution to the story is as ambiguous and circular as was the one from the first volume…I haven’t yet read further in the Mythago cycle (and must admit to being less inclined to now), but I hope that Holdstock managed to overcome his desire to keep spinning out the mystery and supplied some real answers, or at least resolutions, to the still hanging threads of the story of Ryhope Wood.