A mysterious ruin in a dangerous wood. A fateful expedition. A strained relationship, ancient secrets & tensions. Wothwood by Natania Barron, part of the Broken Cities series of stories, brings a lean and mean novella sensibility to a secondary world quest fantasy with a lot of character and worldbuilding on offer.
The story of Wothwood centers, really, around two characters, and their old encounter, which comes back in unexpected guise to challenge them, those around them, and the entirely of the land around. Braig Vann was seemingly destined to be the heir to Clan Bannercliffe, the next leader, Moramer of the Clan. Glannon Bel, however, his cousin, wrests the position away from him, leaving him to die at the edge of the Wothwood. Saved from certain death, Braig’s new life with the wandering, disenfranchised Tyckners is distant from his cousin’s eye for years, until an expedition from a nearby Empire comes to investigate the mysterious Wothwood for themselves. Caught up in that expedition, Braig’s return to Bannercliffe territory, and facing the Moramer Glannon Bel, is the driving force for old secrets, both between the two of them, and what truly lurks in the Wothwood.
That strong conflict between the two characters really drives the heart and narrative of Wothwood in a dynamic and strong way, to the point that the other characters, as interesting and detailed as their stories are, really fall into their shadow. Take Aoda, for example. Professor, researcher, traveler, a woman in a man’s world, she reminds me of Lady Trent from Marie Brennan’s novels in her struggles to be taken seriously, and her competence, dedication and inner fortitude. The author could have just as easily focused completely on her life and story, before and after the incident here. I’d be one for reading more of Aoda’s story. Too, Sid Poole, the Tyckner who saved Braig and is his mentor and partner, has a very interesting story and secrets that would be extremely spoilery to reveal. His strand was fascinating, too.
This fascination and interest goes right into the world that the author invokes in a remarkably few set of pages. She doesn’t handhold the reader, but does use some relatively familiar conventions to help as a shorthand. The Brezhian clans do have a Celtic feel to them, a bunch of feuding and squabbling polities in the shadow of the more organized Therian Empire — there always is an Empire, and this one, although it’s physically offstage, definitely has influenced and affected the Brehzians even before the expedition to the Wothwood from the Empire arrives on their soil.
And then there is the titular Wothwood itself. A magical, mystical, mysterious wood that has been a source and center of strangeness, religion and power for time immemorial, the strangeness of the wood is invoked from afar and up close as the expedition begins in earnest. It is clear, from the very beginning of the novella, that the nature of the Wothwood is not simple, and not mundane, and the revelation of what is going on, and how it has tied into things in Brezhia for a very long time, is well rendered. As the expedition wound to the center of the Wothwood, as one might go deep into Rhyope in Mythago Wood, I found myself fascinated by what would be the secret, and the answer, and the consequences of the expedition, for Braig, Glannon and the rest.
Wothwood shows off the author’s strengths and well involved prose in full. It’s an excellent starting point for those curious about an exciting and talented author.