I have a bad habit of overusing the word “haunting.” Ergo, I worry that when I use it here, it won’t pack the punch it really should. Let me just say, then, that when I say Lavondyss is haunting, I mean it. This book settled into my bones like a hard winter. It will stay in my mind forever. I feel like I’ve lived a whole second life by reading it, and I’ll probably read it again at my earliest convenience just to see if I catch anything I missed the first time.
I had trouble getting into the previous book, Mythago Wood, but I was glad I read it and am now even gladder, as it provides lots of background that helps make sense of Lavondyss. Lavondyss feels more like a “straight” fantasy novel, though; while there is still the idea that people create mythagos with their minds and that many of the book’s mythagos are personally tied to its central character, to me it feels that this time the story and the world stand more on their own and have more of a life outside of the character’s psychology. I feel less like I’m reading a slightly veiled book on Jung and Freud, and more like I’ve been sucked into a seductive, visceral fairy tale. I’m yet again reminded of a work of nonfiction — this time Robert Graves’ The White Goddess — but this time the analytical part of my mind was content to curl up by the fire and let Robert Holdstock spin his tale.
In Mythago Wood, Steven Huxley’s traveling companion was Harry Keeton. Lavondyss centers on Harry’s younger sister, Tallis. Born when Harry was already a grown man, Tallis only knew her brother briefly, but she and her family are haunted by his disappearance. Tallis is an uncanny, precocious girl with an instinctive gift for magic, and it’s simply enchanting to follow along as she learns the ways of the wood and its spirits. Eventually, she journeys into the wood on a quest to find her missing brother. What happens after that, I won’t spoil, since I want you to be able to discover it for yourself. It’s an enthralling story, though, sometimes sad, sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary as hell. There are layers within layers, timelines looping around themselves in ways that don’t become evident until later, and an ambiguous ending.
I love ambiguous endings, and I hate them. I love them and hate them because they stick with me, nagging at my brain, never letting me forget them. I lay awake for hours after finishing Lavondyss, prodding at the ending in my mind, wondering whether the “happier” interpretation of the ending might actually be a sadder one. I simultaneously wished Holdstock had clarified it and was very glad he hadn’t. It’s more memorable this way, and fitting for the Mythago Wood universe.
Lavondyss has everything I love in a book: compelling characters, vivid prose, mythic elements, art-as-magic, complex character relationships, and just the right amount of ambiguity. It’s a fairy tale, the old kind with blood and revenge and jaw dropping wonder. It’s the kind of book that, when you finish, you feel the urge to flip right back to the first page and start over. (The only reason I didn’t was that it was the middle of the night. Blasted day job…)