With Darkwood, it was the other way around. Everywhere I looked, people were saying ... eh. But when I actually read the book, I kept turning pages, wondering when the boredom would hit.
It never hit.
Darkness falls so quickly in Howland that the people there have no word for evening. One minute the sky is light, the next minute it is black. But darkness comes in other forms, too, and for thirteen-year-old Annie, the misery she endures in her Uncle’s household makes the black of night seem almost soothing. When Annie escapes, her route takes her first to a dangerous mine where a precious stone is being stolen by an enemy of the king, and later to the king’s own halls, where a figure from Annie’s past makes a startling appearance. All the while, reported sightings of kinderstalk— mysterious, wolf-like creatures that prowl Howland’s dark forests—grow more frequent. Eloquent, suspenseful, and imbued with fairy-tale motifs found in The Brothers Grimm, this is a riveting coming-of-age story of a girl who must learn to trust her instincts if she’s to lead the people she is destined to rule.
So what’s earning Darkwood these one thumb downs? Perhaps the plot-driven factor. While there are several engaging characters, people don’t really propel the story. As a lover of character-driven novels myself, I did recognize a point when my interest really pricked: our heroine crossed paths with a pair of enjoyable sisters. I’ll wager some of the other tour participants warmed up to Darkwood about that time.
Another criticism I read was choppy flow. Breen’s block style does feel awkward at first—each chapter is divided into an average of six portions. But once you get used to the cradle-rocking, this format reads well: like hopping from lily pad to lily pad in pursuit of a big fat fly. Crouching and landing fade to the back of your mind as you focus on the chase.
I’m not saying the book never stumbled. There was a time or two that I mentally clucked, when a direction-changing speech felt shaky, or a sequence moved too fast. But all things considered, (“all things” meaning my hawk eyes, thanks to negative reviews), Breen escaped quite well. :)
I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of far-world fantasies. Sometimes an author’s world-building is wearisome beyond belief. But Breen slips in a brick here and a bit of mortar there, without burdening the reader. For example: “Go get the almanac. I saw it in the kitchen...” Like most people, Beatrice and Serena kept maps at the back of their almanac. Page opened the map of Howland and laid it next to the old map.” Or, “Bea had baked a dozen dandelion muffins.” Simple, yet full of flavor.
Tomorrow, I’ll post some favorite excerpts and talk about what made certain characters pop, but in the meantime, snitch a bite of the writing and judge for yourself:
“Then, as they crested a hill the great city itself appeared, a simmering white mass, with the palace perched above it like the top layer of a wedding cake.”
“The bindweed groaned as it loosed itself from the stone, one fingerlike branch after another snapping free. The top of the vine, already loose, had curved over itself like a question mark, its leaves hissing and whispering as they fell.”
Note: You know what Darkwood’s aftertaste reminded me of?
Just how much of a final verdict is determined by expectations, do you think?