There are aspects of childhood that I miss – the long school holidays, jumping in puddles just for the fun of it and of course the particular type of magic associated with a good old fashioned fairytale which is why Erin Bow’s debut novel, Wood Angel, is simply a delight to read. From the moment you open the cover and read that first page you are swept off to a land far far away where magic is possible and cats, well one in particular, can talk. However, sticking to the Grimm tradition of fairytales, there is darkness in the world of Wood Angel and our heroine has to struggle through many challenges to find her version of a ‘happily ever after’.
The main protagonist, Kate, or Plain Kate as she becomes known by most of the other characters, lives in a small village with her father who is an established carver. In this world, superstition and magic live hand in hand. One of the tasks of a carver is to create charms for protection from evil spirits. Kate’s incredible talent as a carver marks her out for suspicion of witchcraft in a time where witches are still regularly burned at the stake. When she becomes an orphan, Kate’s life is subject to the changing mercies of the people in her village. Her only companion and true friend is Tangle, a cat which gains extraordinary abilities later in the story. When a mysterious witch, Linay, visits Kate’s village, he seems determined to drive her out by stoking the flames of suspicion and framing her for malicious witchcraft. Ultimately, Linay achieves his goal which is to force Kate into making a magical transaction with him; one in which where she trades her shadow and is forced to flee her village. Kate’s journey for a new home and family finds her facing many perils including discrimination, a mysterious fog which brings death and Linay’s plot to use her shadow in a magical quest for revenge.
Despite being a relatively short novel, Wood Angel manages to weave several plots together to create a story where you are never quite sure of what the next twist will be. The characters are wonderfully complex and human. One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is that Erin Bow blends light and shadow into each character, developing them fully as a person and raising thought-provoking questions about the simplicity of good versus evil. It would have been altogether too easy to create Linay as a simple villain who plays life and death games with the innocent Kate. However, as the story progresses, we find Linay to be a complicated and rather tragic figure who is capable of both great evil and kindness. Other characters, such as the group of travellers that Kate finds a temporary home with, are also portrayed in a way that demonstrates a great understanding of the fears and motivations which may lead a seemingly kind person to commit horrific acts of cruelty against others. Aside from the characters, the plot also raises intriguing questions about the nature of revenge and victimisation. Whilst the horror of Linay’s plot is acknowledged, the darkness and cruelty of the actions which drove him to seek revenge in the first place are also explored with great sensitivity.
So far, this discussion may suggest that Wood Angel is rather a sombre and heavy-going novel which couldn’t be further from the truth. In Kate, we have a resilient and pragmatic protagonist who keeps calm and carries on despite all the odds being against her. Her determination to survive and the way she deals with tragedy is inspiring. The story places a high value on friendship and acceptance which can be seen in the relationship between Kate and Drina, a traveller girl who is slowly coming into her own magical powers. Taggle, the talking cat, also provides some of the wittiest lines and comedic moments as a small creature with a great sense of his own superiority, not just to other animals but most people as well. In fact, I would defy anyone to read this novel and manage not to fall in love with this little, furry hero.
All of this is made possible by Erin Bow’s beautiful style of writing which is both elegant and simplistic. The author’s grasp of imagery is astounding; with a few words she is capable of creating an ominous sense of supernatural danger or capturing the hilarious bravado of a talking cat. Wood Angel manages to avoid the pitfalls of flowery language and over detailed prose whilst creating an evocative landscape and an era of superstition and fear that wouldn’t be out of place in human history.
With a novel, this beautiful and well-rounded, it is difficult to find something to find default with. The worst I could possibly say is that this novel can be hauntingly sad. Kate and her companions have to make some heart breaking decisions and sacrifices, this is not a story where the heroine gets everything handed to her on a plate and lives happily ever with her prince in a magnificent castle. However, this novel, will linger in your mind, not just for days but for weeks, after you have finished reading it. I highly recommend it as something to snuggle up with in the dark winter evenings ahead.
I would give this novel four out of five.
Red Hamilton (who thinks Puss in Boots has a new rival…)
Wood Angel is available from Amazon here.