Willa of the Wood
by Robert Beatty
Willa can blend. She can disappear.
She can bend the wood to her very will, feeling the drum of it deep in her bones. She can move like a snake, silent and cunning.
The very soil of the woods is mixed within her own heart’s blood. She is tethered to the forest and the animals that inhabit it as if by the same roots that bind the trees to the earth.
The trees are her refuge, they are her home.
On her own, Willa is magnificent. She slithers in and out of the layers of the forest much like the jungle cats. She knows where the freshest spring lives. She can tell what the weather will be by the taste of the air. But she lives a double life. As a talented thief, Willa is exploited by her tribe. She is used and abused, forced into the night and into the homes of the human folk … where she is charged with the task of stealing a treasure made of hairpins and dolls, of toy trains and tin cups. Failure is not an option, no matter the risk. She is a creature of the night and as such, Willa is watched for with much trepidation by the day-folk. They fruitlessly lock their doors against her and believe that she is larger than life – a monster set to destroy their dreams and take from them what is most valued.
One night Willa finds herself in the most curious of homes. There are bedrooms with no children in them. There is a chair at the table set for a wife who does not exist. And the man … he is so sad, even in his sleep. He lives alone, the deep lines on his face and the dog napping at his feet his only companions. Against her better judgement, Willa steals from him and in doing so, feels a tiny sliver of her heart slip away. This is not what she wants her life to be but she has no other choice. She is a thief.
It is with this particular robbery that Willa realizes the reality around her; the dreamy lie told to her by her chief melts away like a palette of watercolors left in a rainstorm. As a part of the wood-fae who live amongst the foliage and the roots deep under ground, she has never questioned reason or rule. It has always been assumed that she will venture out and bring home treasure to sustain her clan. It has always been an unspoken rule that she will not talk back. But Willa’s blood runs deep as still waters, and under the guidance of her grandmother, she has finally recognized the threat for what it is. She vows to no longer be a victim of the people she has made her home with.
Her people are not doing as they should. They are committing dastardly deeds and bastardizing their culture and duty to the earth. They are imprisoning day-folk children for their own benefit and gain, treating them as worse than animals. Her clan leader is not to be trusted and what’s worse, his power has reached far and wide, poisoning the minds of her fellow Faeran. And that’s not her only concern … day-folk are coming into her woods and felling trees at an incredible rate, displacing the animals that she holds so dear and burning the trees as if purely for the sake of pleasure.
It falls on her shoulders to incite a great change, and Willa is up for the daunting challenge.
Willa of the Wood is the newest novel by the famed Serafina series author, Robert Beatty. Set in the Smokey Mountains and outlying lands, it is full of a rich and magical history as well as a deep-rooted connection to nature. It is reminiscent of and reads like a Native American folktale, full of a love of land and a reverence for its ancient powers.
While I appreciated the sentiments involved, I was surprised at the targeted audience for this novel. The language and way of writing is very beautiful and complex; the descriptions are incredibly vivid and the imagery is compelling. Beatty has a way of creating a scene that leaves the reader completely immersed in the surroundings, whether it be a farm house or an underground cave or a wild and untamed river. The character of Willa is very young in appearance but very wise in spirit and maturity. She is a loner in the midst of a tribe – which in itself is a juxtaposition – and that was what I found most interesting about her. But this novel read more along the lines of YA fantasy than mid-grade, and I say that because in reality, the story is much more complex than mid-grade books usually are. This novel also tended to be very dark. There were several questionable scenes involving children in cages, being starved and abused. Because of this, I didn’t feel the content was appropriate for a child under the age of 12. The content was way too heavy and I felt would miss the mark.
This is my first dip in the Beatty pond, and I don’t know that I will be going back. There was a little too much focus on description and less movement in plot development. I get it – this is like an homage to Ferngully … written almost in a poem form, right? Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get in to it. Willa was not given enough humanity, and I realize that this was because she was, in fact, fae but … if your target audience is a 10 year-old, you need to give them a character that they can relate to so that their interest is held. Willa remained aloof throughout the entire novel, seeming only to bond with animals and sometimes with Nathaniel (the owner of the house she stole from) but all in all, came across as cold and otherworldly. This may have been the author’s intent, but it failed to compel me to feel a substantial connection to the main character, and that is something I need to feel invested in the story.
I give Willa of the Wood 3 out of 5 stars, and those stars are based upon the beautiful descriptive writing and not on the storytelling.