I’ve been watching a lot of CinemaSins on YouTube lately (warning: that channel is for mature audiences only), hence the title of this post. For anyone who has no idea what I’m referencing, CinemaSins is a small group of independent movie critics who provide a snarky, often humorous spin on our favorite films, or the films we love to hate. The caption for each of their videos begins “Everything wrong with…” and insert the title of the movie.
Last week, I decided to check out from the library a juvenile series called “The Wildwood Chronicles” that I’ve seen multiple times while carrying out my shelving duties. The covers alone drew me in, and overrode my slight misgivings about the length of the books. (Each one has a total of more than 500 pages. And, yes, someone expects middle-schoolers to be reading this.) Anyway, I hauled the stack home, and dove in.
A few pages in, I realized I’d read the first book before. But I had very little recollection of what happened, so I kept going. I wondered why some things came back to me right away (like the startling opening where the protagonist tries to chase down a bunch of crows that have just literally grabbed her baby brother and flown off), but others (most of the secondary characters, for example) weren’t familiar.
I read on, growing increasingly confused, as A) the plot makes very little sense, and B) I couldn’t ever recall seeing “Wildwood” anywhere on blogs or reviews. Wouldn’t an MG fantasy touted by the marketing as “the American Narnia” have received a lot of attention?
The premise of “Wildwood” is that 12-year-old Prue loses her baby brother to the aforementioned crows, and immediately develops a plan to retrieve the child, while keeping his sudden disappearance a secret from their parents. On the one hand, we can all understand Prue’s motivations; but on the other, I highly doubt that most 7th-graders would have the fortitude to carry out such actions, no less on their own. At that age, most kids, having just experienced something so traumatic, would simply run home to their parents and sob out the terrible truth.
There’s also the fact this story is set in the very real city of Portland, Oregon, which is a significant population center, and most of it rather urban and modern. However, Meloy, the author (a Portland native) chose to put a huge, dark, looming forest — called The Impassable Wilderness — on the outskirts of the city limits. Now, I’m all for artistic license, but this…just doesn’t jive. I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, but I can certainly look at an atlas, and see that there is no such area right next to Portland.
So, we start off with a wobbly foundation for a very long novel. It only gets worse as we proceed further.
As Prue travels through the “Impassable Wilderness” — which turns out to be a civilization unto itself, with humans who live about as we did in the 1940s or so, and animals who talk, walk upright, and wear clothes — she gets waylaid by several subplots that have little to nothing to do with her brother’s plight. This means the reader is being constantly introduced to new characters, locations, and motivations, and it’s really hard to keep track, and stay invested.
Here we reach the moment CinemaSins would warn, “Spoilers! (Duh!)”
You’ve all heard me whine before about irresponsible, or downright stupid, parents in YA/MG. And I’ve come across some pretty bad ones, but it has to be said that “Wildwood” takes the cake. Prue’s parents are portrayed as former hippies on steroids, who feel it’s totally fine to let their daughter be a self-proclaimed vegetarian, babysit her little brother all day long, without any help, and apparently not go to school for weeks at a time because the talking animals need her (insert massive eye roll here). About halfway through, Prue feels defeated in her quest to rescue the baby, and goes home and comes clean with her parents. Her mother and father have, at least, posted missing flyers for their children and are appropriately distraught. But they go on to tell Prue a far-fetched tale about how they made a fertility bargain with a magical figure from the I.W., and how apparently the baby wasn’t ever theirs rightfully, and Prue shouldn’t risk her life going back to Wildwood, they can be a happy family, just the three of them…right?
No, I’m not kidding.
For some reason, I did keep reading (maybe self-inflicted torture was the only option on the menu that weekend?), and when I finally crossed the finish line…I realized I was going to read the other two. Not because the book suddenly got much better. No, simply to see how bad it could get.
The sequel is called “Under Wildwood,” and is even more meandering. It carries on the pattern of numerous subplots and trope characters that I wasn’t interested in. And it adds in another POV; the first installment was told from Prue’s perspective, or that of her classmate Curtis, who (for some unknown but slightly stalker-ly reason) follows her into the Impassable Wilderness and they get separated early on (of course). But the second book also includes the POV of Curtis’ younger sisters, AND, at times, of a strange man running the orphanage Curtis’ sisters have been taken to “temporarily.”
Yes, that makes about as much sense as you’d think it would. The idea is that, after Prue (with a saved baby in tow, don’t worry) makes her way home from the I.W., Curtis remains there, and his parents believe he’s gone missing, and they decide to travel the world (yup), to try to find him. Instead of leaving his sisters with grandparents or neighbors or family friends, they put the girls in an orphanage (yuuuup). And of course the people who run the establishment are terrible and yadah, yadah, yadah.
Meanwhile, political regime conspiracies in Wildwood have overtaken most of the main plotline; Prue is suddenly painted as a sort of savior for this world, which takes a page straight out of Narnia, and seems to give it the bird. Prue isn’t an ordinary kid who stumbles into this magical place that she’s destined to help; she’s the most mature and responsible 12-year-old ever, who suddenly has incredible powers that she learns how to use in about a day. If you (Meloy) don’t like The Chronicles of Narnia, fine, you don’t have to. But there is something seriously pretentious — and offensive — about ripping it off, to “make it better,” and then shove that in your audience’s face. It isn’t just arrogant and off-putting in general; it’s disrespectful at a level most readers (and writers) would find unacceptable.
Don’t ask me why I kept going. I guess I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe curiosity killed the cat. But, yes, I wasted one more night on the final book, “Wildwood Imperium.”
Anyway, I managed to grasp the resolutions of the main plot — but, wow, did the author make me work for it. Between the not-at-all-subtle political messages, the many and varying subplots, and my ongoing frustration with the majority of the adult characters being totally dumb, it was a struggle.
In the end (spoilers! duh!), Prue stops a Big Bad Woman (strongly resembling the White Witch of Narnia) from taking over both Wildwood and the outside world using Plant Magic (yupper), but it means she’s almost wiped out (dun, dun, dun), and has to be buried in the local foliage to hopefully survive. Which she does, coming back as a tree in her parents’ backyard. Ahh, yeah, you did read that right. Sorry. Then the tree turns back into a person and her family’s reunited, and, er, yay, I guess.
Curtis finds his sisters and they all go home and are reunited with their dumb-ass parents, and, supposedly, yay and happy stuff.
Except I’m not buying it. Any of it, really.
Not a SINGLE explanation is given for why Prue was so special in Wildwood, how she even had powers, or why the natives let her just waltz in and become their messiah. I’m genuinely not sure how the stupid, nasty man who ran the orphanage fit into that whole subplot, as it was so dull and overdramatic I’ll admit I skipped big chunks of it. The notion of Prue and Curtis going missing for long periods of time and their families NOT being investigated for committing a nefarious crime just isn’t realistic.
The residents of Wildwood are gullible, elitist, and too mysterious for their own good. They indicate having a poor opinion of “Outsiders,” but there’s never anything included in the text to suggest why. Were people from Portland really mean to the I.W. natives? Did Portland even know what was really out there, hence the blocking off the area and calling it dangerous? Or vice versa?
The Plant Magic doesn’t make much sense, and its origins and operations are hinted at being more the basis for a religion in Wildwood rather than as a magic system. We’re left utterly scratching our heads as to how it connected with Prue, the “normal” kid.
We receive very little background before being dropped straight into the story — we have no idea what Prue’s parents do for a living, if she has any friends or hobbies (apart from the fleeting comment she might like to draw birds). Curtis is the “nerd” in her class, who everyone wants to avoid, but they somehow wind up close friends. As the story goes on, we do get a little more information about Curtis’ family, but most of what we’re told about Prue’s is little, insignificant details — they like to go to farmer’s markets, her dad hates to take out the trash, her mom is bad at knitting. None of it MATTERS in the context of what’s intended to be this sweeping fantasy epic.
This is a series that reminds me — painfully — why middle-schoolers say reading is boring.
And this could also be why I’ve never come across this trilogy anywhere in the blogisphere. Most reviewers are adults — or at least in their late teens — and many of us who read MG fiction want something that appeals to people of all ages. If a book or series is so tedious that even an adult, with greater levels of patience and tolerance, doesn’t want to sit through it all, how in the world can we get 6th-graders excited about it?
Usually I leave it up to you, my readers, to determine whether you’d enjoy a particular title. But I can honestly say, when it comes to “The Wildwood Chronicles,” I don’t recommend even that.