I love fairy tales and I love books about fairy tales. There is something about that whole mysterious world full of dark woods, dragons, princesses, talking frogs, wolves and witches that can fascinate me both as a child and an adult. So when I stumbled across a book that promised to delve into fairy tales in a very new and different way, I knew I had to pick it up and devour it. I'm talking, of course, about The Beginning Woods. It feels like a well-worn and trusted classic and yet is beautifully modern and complicated as well, which is a stunning combination. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 1/09/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press
A MYSTERY NO ONE CAN SOLVE
The Vanishings started without warning. People disappearing into thin air - just piles of clothes left behind. Each day, thousands gone without a trace.
A BABY NO ONE WANTED
Max was abandoned in a bookshop and grows up haunted by memories of his parents. Only he can solve the mystery of the Vanishings.
A SECRET THAT COULD SAVE THE FUTURE
To find the answers, Max must leave this world and enter the Beginning Woods. A realm of magic and terror, life and death.
But can he bear the truth - or will is destroy him?
A STORY THAT WILL TAKE YOU TO ANOTHER WORLD
Greater than your dreams. Darker than your fears. Full of more wonder than you could ever desire. Welcome to the ineffable Beginning Woods...
Clocking in at almost 450 pages, The Beginning Woods is a chunk of a book, which likes to take its time. Some reviews of this novel have taken an issue with its "slow pace", while also complaining about being confused by the plot. These two criticisms surprise me because they feel antithetical to me. The Beginning Woods takes its time, at the beginning, setting up various different plot lines for the reader to become adjusted to before the major story takes off. Rather than jumping from dramatic scene to dramatic scene, McNeill actually lingers on his characters, allowing his readers to sink into them and their minds. This especially counts for Max, the young protagonist of the novel. We get to know Max slowly but surely in the first 100 pages or so, and this kind of pace can be, I guess, off-putting to some who prefer to be dropped straight into the action. But for a novel like The Beginning Woods, which has so much to give for those readers who pay close attention, this kind of pace is a boon because it allows the reader to relax into the prose, be inspired and transported by it. Although it is difficult to maintain this kind of magic over 400+ pages, but for most of The Beginning Woods McNeill manages to bewitch.
At the heart of The Beginning Woods lies the importance and power of words and dreams. The Vanishings that plague the world, the Beginning Woods, Max's quest for his parents, the beautiful fairy tale-esque stories intertwined with the main plot lines; all this comes together to impress upon the reader how important it is to dream. Max comes into the world alone and is haunted by the desire to find his real parents. As the world becomes more and more paranoid about the Vanishings, Max is drawn to the Beginning Woods which seems to hold more questions and only few answers. Max is supported by a very interesting mix of characters, both magical and normal. Through these side-characters McNeill is able to pose some of life's most difficult questions and formulate some potential answers for the reader to figure out. Choosing a teenage boy as a protagonist comes with the same kind of dangers as picking a teenage girl, there is a lot of internal angst to potentially deal with. At times Max's worries and actions can be a bit annoying, but this is also natural for such a long and complex novel.
McNeill's writing throughout the novel is stunning, which made it very hard for me to believe this is his first book. As the plot moves along, there are some absolutely stunning moments and images which are incredibly inspired. I often find myself disappointed in Fantasy authors who copy without adding any new life to the old material. In The Beginning Woods there are witches, dragons, giants and ghosts, but the reader meets them in a completely new guise. It is incredibly refreshing to read a Fantasy novel that isn't lazy, that goes beyond and tries to create truly new and different ideas for the genre. Although this kind of experimentation can also go wrong every once in a while, overall I think that The Beginning Woods is a tour-de-force of fantastical experimentation. The Beginning Woods also isn't afraid to go dark and deep, whether it is in reaimagining fairy tale staples or having Max confront his most inner dark secrets. It's the kind of Fantasy novel you feel would inspire children, to read and to dream, and that is one of the best things any book could ever do.
I give this novel...
I really loved The Beginning Woods! Although there are lesser moments in the novel, overall it is a fascinating Fantasy novel that celebrates dreaming and imagining, reading and loving. I will most definitely be rereading this novel and trying to find a hardback to add to my Fantasy/Fairy Tale shelf. I'd recommend this to fans of both Fantasy and Young Adult.