by The Sullivan Brothers
Published by Justin Sullivan on 12/6/11
or, The Mystery of the Indefinable Good Thing.
Axton awoke to the peculiar aromas of damp Sweetshrooms, earthy Stonewood sap, and fresh Melonvine rinds of the pantry above the kitchen. A squishy, floral pillow was propped beneath his head and soft moss cushioned the floor, but apparently that hadn’t been enough to make him comfortable. The first thing he became aware of was Aniva’s dirty foot squashed in his mouth, which he promptly flung away. Then, as he sat up spitting and sputtering, he felt a sharp strain in his back. The hefty book he had brought up with him from Linnea’s shelves had somehow worked its way beneath him while he slept.
Oh look, we’ve all been there. Not the foot thing — and for the record, Aniva is Axton’s twin sister, pervaphores — but the falling asleep on a book thing. And I’m hoping I’m not the only one in this other boat, the good ship Why Do I Love This Book So Much?
Axton and Aniva were three when their parents crashed into a tree and disappeared, and so thirteen spooky years later they revisit the scene of the accident, see a woman with lime-green eyes and discover a whole secret Garden beyond the verdant fronds of a giant willow. In the garden there are only two types of animals: people and Wilds, people who have been tainted by contact with poisonous plants and are mutating into demons. Everything else is plantlike in origin: the tasty Sweetshrooms, the ferociously protective Tanglervine Hedge, the lantern-leaf plants the garden-dwellers use to tell time and provide light, the grass-like Lightblades and Darkblades they use as weapons, the Glowvines they decorate themselves with. Everything.
And everyone the twins run into seems to know their parents but are strangely reluctant to talk about them…
Now, while the critical reviewer in me read this book with an eye as to the things I found problematic*, that list became quickly obsolete in the face of one simple truth: so help me, I LOVED IT.
The worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrld-building, yesssssssss.
It’s just so immersive and well thought-out. Axton and Aniva are polar opposites, and the way they approach this alien civilization is well-delineated without being preachy: Axton comes from a place of peace and the urge for understanding, while his sister just wants to eat or fight everything in her path. And soon she’s harboring a very big secret.
I’ve read other critiques of the book, and the shortfalls other reviewers noted — Axton *does* sound about 12, and some of the supporting characters do come across a little archetypey — really don’t matter when weighed against just how freaking much I loved this book. It’s…chewy, y’all. I want to find a woman with lime-green eyes** and step beyond the Willow’s veil. I want to go to the Pumpershroom Festival and swim to the Mossy Isles. I want to study the taxonomy of plants with Linnea, the kindly Gaia-figure who takes the orphans in and teaches bookworm Axton how to identify all the plants in the Garden. I’m down! I’ll audit that class! Right here! Let me in!
One of the critiques I’ve seen time and time again was that the character of Aniva, Axton’s twin sister, is selfish and mean and violent. Well yes, she is. And it’s A W E S O M E. Look, I don’t think we’re at a point in YA fantasy or hell, even fantasy as a whole where I’m tired of selfish, mean, violent female characters, as long as they’re interesting and well-written. And Aniva is both. She’s also determined, smart and adaptable.
Anyway, let’s get back to the world-building, because I loved it so very much. The Lanterns, for instance:
Willow strands had taken root in the woman’s scalp, growing so thick, it almost looked like hair. This mane of branchlets had formed the curtain that she stepped through, and as the Witch entered the room, the Willow strands fell and blanketed her entire body with foliage. Only her face remained bare. “I’m so glad you invited me to your little get together,” said the Green Witch. “My name doesn’t appear on guest lists anymore, which I find peculiar, as I’m usually the life of the party.”
She shrugged with her hands turned up, and her Willow hair morphed into glossy, emerald vines, each strand spiraling over her limbs to create tight sleeves and leggings. A few vines curled upwards to emphasize her shrug.
“And of course, being the life of the party means someone has to die. If no one gets hurt, then where’s the fun, right?”
Yeah, maybe I should’ve taken this space to talk more about how the book dealt with the idea of masculinity and the thinly-disguised puberty that was the change from person to Wild, but instead I’m off to harass the authors into writing the sequel faster. Back in a bit.
Shadowbloom is book one in the Rhyme of the Willow series and is free for Kindle. Book two, Darkroot, is due out this summer.
*And really it boiled down to: 1) Axton being kind of a weenie; 2) world’s least believable teen crush; and 3) a few sentence constructions where the authors used a word that maybe did not mean what they think it means. But seriously, minor quibbles.
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