Mythago Wood

I first heard about Mythago Wood on sffworld.com during a discussion of great fantasy novels. One moderator even called it “legendary”. Intrigued by anything to earn such an honor, and a “World Fantasy Award” winner to boot, I decided it was in my best interest to check out the 1984 novel by Robert Holdstock.

The premise of Mythago Wood is quite original, if not possibly unique, a hard thing to come by in fantasy these days. Unlike your typical secondary-world adventure, Mythago Wood starts right here on Earth toward the end of World War II. The protagonist, Steven, is a stiff-upper lip veteran from an affluent British family that reminds me a lot of Jonathan from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Much like Stoker’s novel, in Mythago Wood there is no shortage of posturing, mulling, and reading people’s diaries before anyone takes action. When his only brother, Christian, disappears for months in a deadly forest, Steven decides it’s the best time to renovate the old house. Only when the love interest is introduced does the story get going. Her name is Guiwenneth and she’s not all too familiar with social etiquette, like bathing or grooming, but it’s OK because she’s a beautiful feisty redhead who explores the house with childlike innocence and kicks ass with a spear. Basically, she’s every fantasy fan’s dream girl (and not unlike the kind I dream up myself). Gwynn is, in fact, so superior you tend to wonder how she could fall for such a weak, spineless, cowardly male like Steven—but I digress. The only thing that really matters about Gwynn is that she may not actually exist—at least not in the traditional sense. She is a “mythago” which is, and I’ll do my best here, a mix of Steven’s psyche and a myth from Britain’s past, brought to life through the inter-dimensional magic of the forest itself. Yeah. Which brings up so many questions it boggles the mind. The how and when this magic works is never fully explained, and, whether explanation is even feasible is beyond the scope of this review. But it’s just for this reason that their love affair feels doomed. How does a normal man carry on a relationship with a mythological character?

Calling these woods “haunted” would be an understatement. In Ryhope Wood, you may encounter Robin Hood (who will try to kill you, for some reason), ancient pirates, ghosts, monsters, Vikings; and all craziness settlers to the British Isles dreamt up since the Ice Age. What’s more, time and space expands inside the forest, so though it may seem only a few miles across from the outside, it extends as deep as the Amazon on the inside.

It’s only when Gwynn is kidnapped that Steven finally grows a pair and springs into action, which starts the third act of the book. Much of it reads as an adventure reminiscent of Tolkien. There is much about sloping hills and coursing rivers and the changing of foliage (what is it with Brits and their love of nature descriptions?) These kinds of passages often feel like filler and I tend to rush through them to get to the “meat” of the story. If done well, such passages can pull a reader in, but a little goes a long way (Lord of the Rings is no exception). The other problem I found with Mythago Wood is a thing a professor of mine once said, “Please don’t make it all just a dream.” Some poor writers can’t help thinking themselves clever by having their stories end with “but it was all just a dream” even though every reader feels cheated by it, not to mention it’s cliche. Dream endings are one of the few absolutes in writing where I find it hard to play Devil’s Advocate. Even though Mythago Wood does not take this route, the dream like quality of the forest, the sense that anything imaginable is possible, makes whatever happens feel inconsequential, which is precisely what people hate about dream stories. At one point, when the heroes are about to face impossible odds, the novel pulls a deus ex machina and they’re all saved by ghosts! It’s just the sort of thing you might expect in a magic forest, but it still felt like a cheat to me.  


That’s not to say I don’t recommend Mythago Wood. Its excellent prose (a rare thing to find post 1980’s), its wonderfully unique concept, and its usages of myth and folklore more than make up for any shortcomings. I love the many stories told within the story, which reminded me of the best of  Grimm’s Brothers and the Kalevala. Whether any of the book’s “mythagos” derive from actual British lore I could not tell, but the novel seems to suggest that these ancient names exist within our primitive memories and we forget them at our own peril. In this way, Mythago Wood rises a level above simple fantasy fiction to become something greater, as a book regarding the importance of myth itself. My interpretation: mythagos are within us, whether we remember them or not, and they greatly define who we are and how we choose to live our lives. 

Perhaps my expectations were a little high considering the hype surrounding this book, but I was not disappointed to have picked it up. Without a doubt, Mythago Wood stands out among the stacks of mass produced fantasy novels as something special.

*** (out of four)

Ages of Aenya Query #5

Condensing 157,000 words into one page is not an easy task. Ages of Aenya is a complex story, an adventure full of monsters, exotic locations, and heroes with their own passions and insecurities. It is a book, I believe, that can be read on multiple levels, as a straightforward fantasy epic, as a tale of environmentalism and prejudice, or on a deeper level, what I consider the naturist aspect, a commentary on how a society loses its humanity in the pursuit of power. I often feel that the book’s greatest strength, its complexity and uniqueness, is what makes it so difficult to query. All of my favorite books belie conventional description. Saying Dune is a book about a desert planet and giant worms is to do Frank Herbert’s masterpiece a disservice, or to describe Moby Dick as a book about a man hunting a whale is to be missing the point. So, too, does describing Ages of Aenya as a story of naked people fighting monsters, though not inaccurate, greatly diminish it.

One agent recently wrote to me, “your idea holds promise”—but of course, it wasn’t the kind of work they represent. I greatly appreciated her politeness and can only wonder whether she sends the same response to all of her queries; but what bugged me was the use of the word “idea”. I realize there are people out there who do not actually write books, just queries for books. Simply coming up with a book idea, rather than an actual story, is infinitely easier, which must explain the ridiculous things I find at Barnes & Nobles these days, like the book I picked up yesterday entitled, “I’m Smarter than Your Kid”, which was nothing more than a collection of young kids drawings with some jerk criticizing each picture in the margins (as a form of humor?). When I see things like that, I just want to scream, “How in the world does this get published!” But I suppose it was a unique idea. Of course, I like to consider myself a writer in the traditional sense, so as hard as it may be, I am going to stick to writing novels whether I know there will be a market for it or not. I do not believe any masterpiece of fiction was ever written based on a single sentence idea. Another agent wrote saying that she really enjoyed what I sent her, but again, not her department. Does that mean I am getting closer? Who knows. But this latest query, no. #5 by my count, gives the best impression of Ages of Aenya so far. I will be sending it to publishers soon, so if you’re one of my fans and you are reading this, don’t be lazy. I know there are a lot of funny things on Cracked.com, but really, what does any of that stuff matter after you’re done laughing? Read the query below and ask yourself, is this something I would want to read? Does this sound exciting/interesting to you? Keep me posted!

Dear Publisher,

As the natural paradise they knew turns to desolation, Xandr and Thelana roam the lands of Aenya, their primeval traditions met with suspicion and scorn. But only the Ilmar remember—through generations of song—the cataclysm that split the world into eternal day and perpetual night, and only a boy born into the stewardship of their people, a Batal, can hope to save Aenya from future ruin.

Based on the illustrious authors you represent, I feel you will be interested in my novel, Ages of Aenya, which offers an eclectic mix of fantasy and science fiction at 157,000 words.

To save the beautiful Thelana—the last woman of his kind—Xandr battles angry zealots, amphibians out for vengeance, and ego-maniacal bird people. But when a star falls from the heavens, laying waste to cities, Xandr and Thelana discover that a new Dark Age is upon them. With Emma, a young witch who communicates with ravens, and Grimosse, Emma’s golem, the Ilmar hunt a construct of flesh and steel—Horde—born of the civilization that doomed their world eons ago. But can these unlikely allies decipher their history, resurrect the Batal from the pages of myth, and stop Horde before mankind’s extinction?

About Me: It is no exaggeration to say that a writing career has been my life’s goal since I was six years old. At the age of nine, I visited DC Comics Headquarters in New York City to sell The Red Panther series. To further hone my writing skills, I attended the University of South Florida, where I received my BA in Creating Writing. My recent short story, The Gorgon’s Lover, was selected a semifinalist for the Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft Award. Curious? Learn more about me and the world of Aenya at: writersdisease@blogspot.com or read the Prologue here.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Nick Alimonos

E-mail: alimonosnick@gmail.com

The Last Unicorn

I love this book. Reading The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle reminded me of why I wanted to be a writer in the first place, of not only the transportative power of fiction but the inspirational power of fantasy. But I am getting ahead of myself here, so let me backtrack a little . . .

One day on a whim, I decided to rent the 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn. I’d read some good reviews on it and I’m also a fan of classical animation, and my seven year old daughter loves unicorns, especially the bastardized versions that can be found in My Little Pony. Unfortunately, the film’s animation is quite shoddy when compared to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Bambi. But the filmmakers aren’t to blame. The heart of the movie is in the right place, but it lacks the time and budget of a Disney or Studio-Ghibli film. Regardless, I was intrigued enough to pick up the 1968 novel by the same title. What I discovered in its pages was a beauty of prose and an effortless poetry that took my breath away (and much to my chagrin, I am green-all-over with envy). Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Peter S. Beagle conjures a myth that seems to have originated from deep within our subconscious memories. But this is no plodding pseudo-history, no world-building treatise like so many fantasy writers strive for these days. Thankfully, Peter S. Beagle offers an economy of story-telling reminiscent of the masterful Ursula K. Leguin, fairy-tale story telling in its purest form. It is not only a tale of magic and adventure and heroics, but also a kind of meta-fiction. Like The Princess Bride and The Never Ending Story, the characters are aware of themselves as fantasy, and yet, The Last Unicorn is much more subtle in breaking the fourth-wall, more moving and more bitter-sweet.

If there is a definitive book on unicorns, a go-to guide for any writer who wishes to use them in their fiction, there is no better place to turn than The Last Unicorn. There has always existed a fascination for unicorns that I have never fully understood. After all, on the surface, they’re just horses with horns, right? Where are the little girls of the world sporting pictures of narwhals on their school lunchboxes? And yet, love for unicorns persists among all ages throughout the ages, only to be surpassed by the dragon in our collective consciousness. But The Last Unicorn reveals why this mythical creature matters. Unicorns represent everything human beings most aspire to, what we find good in the world, all that is pure and innocent and beautiful, and somehow, on some level, we already understand this.

As I read through The Last Unicorn, I kept thinking what a great Disney movie it could make—if done well—but I am saddened to think that, perhaps in our current glut of quick CGI cash-ins, in this cynical age of Shrek, such a film may lack commercial appeal. Like the villain of the book, King Haggard, we may be jaded by wonders. In our desperation to “possess” our myths and preserve our childhoods, we may have drowned them.

I have often argued against the idea of art as perfection. Only math is ever perfect; only a triangle can be described as a perfect triangle. But if there exists a near perfect fantasy novel, this is it. If I were to make a list of the top five greatest fantasy books ever written, The Last Unicorn would have to rank among them. For any lover of the genre, or lover of beautiful writing, I cannot recommend it enough.

**** stars.