The Wood Wife
Windling, Terri. The Wood Wife.
(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 34:6 (#183) in June 1997.)
Reviewed by Eleanor M. Farrell
Windling is best known as an editor of some wonderful collections of fantasy stories, such as The Armless Maiden and the annual Year’s Best Fatnasy and Horror compilations. This is her first novel, an indigenous fantasy set in the Rincon mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Poet Maggie Black finds herself heir to the estate of her mentor, Davis Cooper, at a period in her life when she welcomes an escape from Los Angeles and the world of her musician ex-husband. At first disconcerted by the harsh desert land, Maggie begins to appreciate the beauty surrounding her and the power of the wild, ancient spirits of the place as she reads the papers left behind by Cooper and his gifted lover, the painter Anna Naverra. maggie had first read Cooper’s powerful book of poems, The Wood Wife, in England, and associated the spirits of his poetry with the Celtic creatures of Dartmoor folklore. Now, in the Sonoran desert, she begins to encounter its guardians – mages of wind, wood and stone, earth and sky – and realizes that these are the muses of Cooper’s poetry and the forces influencing the lives of everyone she meets.
Windling’s choice of approach and style has similarities to the stories of Charles de Lint and Robert Holdstock, but I think here, at least, she is a better writer than either of these authors. Where Holdstock’s creation of mythagos and their appearance in the wood in which his stories center is often over-written and convoluted, Windling tells a clear straightforward tale, bringing the magic of the Sante Fe mountains quietly to the surface and into the life of her main character. Perhaps it’s too early to say that Windling will continue to outshine de Lint, since that author’s fault is in telling essentially the same story over and over (and this is Windling’s first book). But I must say that I found her setting and use of mythic figures a refreshing change. Windling uses the Native American motifs of the Trickster, shape-changing and the spiral path, weaving these with Celtic elements like the Wild Hunt into a pattern which demonstrates the universal nature of spirit myths. I don’t know how closely Windling’s mythology fits with Native American folklore, but the elements seem to fit the locale. My main complaint is that there is nobody ordinary in her entire population of characters. Okay, so this is an artists’ colony, full of creative people, but it’s like those medieval fantasy kingdoms filled with courtiers but no scrubwomen.