Genre: YA Fantasy
I normally start my reviews with my own little synopsis of the book, but with The Beginning Woods, I’m not quite sure where to start. So I’m going to let Goodreads do the work for me:
A MYSTERY NO ONE CAN SOLVE
The Vanishings started without warning. People disappearing into thin air – just piles of clothes left behind. Each day, thousands gone without a trace.
A BABY NO ONE WANTED
Max was abandoned in a bookshop and grows up haunted by memories of his parents. Only he can solve the mystery of the Vanishings.
A SECRET THAT COULD SAVE THE FUTURE
To find the answers, Max must leave this world and enter the Beginning Woods. A realm of magic and terror, life and death.
But can he bear the truth – or will is destroy him?
A STORY THAT WILL TAKE YOU TO ANOTHER WORLD
Greater than your dreams. Darker than your fears. Full of more wonder than you could ever desire. Welcome to the ineffable Beginning Woods…
The Beginning Woods (Pushkin Press, Sep. 2016) is an ambitious and enchanting tale brimming with wit and imagination.
I want to start by saying that this book had me in a state of wondrous delight from page one. Not since I was a little kid have I been caught up in such a whirlwind of whimsy. It was fabulous.
While the plot ends up being rather complicated, it is, at its heart a chosen one narrative in which an orphaned protagonist embarks on a journey to a secondary world to complete a magical quest. In this case, the orphan, Max, travels to the Beginning Woods to find his Forever Parents and stop the Vanishings after his adoptive parents disappear. He’s aided in his journey by Dr Boris Peshkov, an Eastern European scientist; a wizard named Mrs Jeffers; and a Cold One (sort of like a ghost) who takes up residence in Max’s fingernail.
The Beginning Woods is ‘like the World, but minus science and plus magic. … Bigger than the best dreamers could ever imagine, darker than they could ever fear, full of more wonders than they could ever desire.’
That’s a pretty big order to fill, but McNeill delivers. There are wind breathing giants, trees full of stories, dragons who’ll help you learnt the truth about yourself if you’re brave enough to stand in their fire, dragon hunters, wicked witches, Wild Ones who’ve become lost in the woods, kobolds and all manner of other magical folk.
The Vanishings are somehow connected to stories, dreams and the overlap between the Beginning Woods and the World, but also to Old Light (lamp light, invented by Mrs Jeffers and used throughout the Beginning Woods) and New Light (electricity, invented by the tinkers Tesla and Edison, used in the World and deadly to those who inhabit the Woods).
While I loved the fantasy and adventure, I found the sheer amount of magic and mayhem in The beginning Woods overwhelming. Seemingly every page holds some new enchantment. For me, the novelty began to wear off around the halfway mark. I wanted McNeill to stop introducing new elements and get on with the story. By the end, I felt like a kid who’d gorged on waaaay too much chocolate.
That said, I don’t want to put off potential readers. While I would have appreciated a little more clarity and focus, The Beginning Woods is a smart and thoroughly entertaining read and a brilliant feat of imagination. It made me feel like a little kid reading a beloved bedtime story, and that in itself is a truly magical experience.
Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of The Beginning Woods in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up two critical issues and twelve advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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