Drowned Country, by Emily Tesh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: Drowned Country is the stunning sequel to Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s lush, folkloric debut. This second volume of the Greenhollow duology once again invites readers to lose themselves in the story of Henry and Tobias, and the magic of a myth they’ve always known.

Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.

Thoughts: Silver in the Wood left readers with a change in stewardship within Greenhollow, the mantle passing from Tobias to Henry, with Tobias now a mortal man and free to leave the Wood. Henry hasn’t exactly taken well to his new role, though, isolating himself in his old house, which is now more of a crumbling ruin than the home he once knew, tending to the Wood mostly by forcing plants to grow when and where he wants them, regardless of the plants’ or Wood’s needs. It’s a visit from his mother that shames him (or perhaps just frustrates him) into leaving where the Wood is and going to where the Wood was, in order to help find a young woman who disappeared in the vicinity of a powerful old vampire. It turns out that Henry is more the vampire’s type than the missing woman, so his mother and Tobias mean to use Henry as bait to lure the vampire out, kill him, and rescue his victim.

I’d say that unsurprisingly, things aren’t quite what they seem, but to be honest, the twist was a bit of a surprise for me. I had settled in for a nice story involving the defeat of a vampire, and what I got instead had more to do with faeries. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

Whereas Silver in the Wood dealt largely with themes of betrayal and purpose, Drowned Country has strong themes of destructive obsession running through it. Maud’s obsession with returning to Fairyland caused problems in her mundane life, resulted in her essentially steamrolling the people sent to help her, but also positioned her to be consumed by a force that would similarly destroy anything to get what it wanted. Henry’s destructive obsession was himself, his own self-indulgence and inability to think beyond, “I am the lord of the wood and have these powers to do with it as I please.” Neither Maud nor Henry were particularly malevolent; it was more that the destructive aspect of their obsession came about because they focused on themselves, to the exclusion of all else, and couldn’t break free from that pattern of thinking to see that their actions had consequences that rippled beyond them.

That’s not to say that a person should be beholden to everyone else’s expectations, especially when those expectations are unreasonable. But there’s a certain amount of give-and-take that can be expected, and ignoring that has its consequences. Maud worried her parents, drawing strangers into the story so that she could be rescued, and her insistence that she was right while everyone else was wrong nearly got multiple people killed, just in the attempt to keep her safe. Henry’s refusal or inability to look outside himself and see that being the Wild Man of Greenhollow involved more than just sitting there and watching/making grass grow was hurting the denizens of the Wood, hurting Henry himself with his isolation and anger and grief. Obsession doesn’t always have to be destructive, but there comes a point where it can become so, where it becomes selfish and harmful, and I think Tesh did a good job of presenting different situations in which this happens.

For most of the story, the relationship between Henry and Tobias was… strained, to say the least. The two had a falling-out, and for good reason, and Henry wavered between trying to rekindle what had once been between them and then deliberately reminding himself that this wasn’t how things were anymore. I have to admit, I wasn’t too keen on that. It does get resolved more toward the end of the novella, but for much of it, I felt like it was going into, “queer people can’t be happy,” territory. Their relationship had failed, their lives would be bitter and lacking without each other, but for legitimately good reasons, trust had been spoiled and being together wasn’t an option for them anymore. And yes, that absolutely happens in relationships, both straight and queer, but it can be tiring to read so many stories where queer couples go through what seems like an inevitable breakup just to bring some tension to the mix. I do like that it was resolved eventually, but the lead-up to that resolution wasn’t exactly enjoyable to read, and I feel like it didn’t really add much to the story.

As interesting as Drowned Country was, I think I liked it less than Silver in the Wood. Partly because of the relationship issues, as I just mentioned, but also partly because in the end, the resolution felt handed to the characters. “Here, have your happy ending, regardless of the fact that you only worked for it for maybe a week, and also the thing causing friction is just gone now so you never have to worry about it again.” It would have been more interesting to see Henry properly come to grips with his new role in life, to pull himself out of his destructive spiral and actually thrive within it, or at least make his peace with it the way Tobias had. Or to take Tobias up on his offer to switch places, for Tobias to resume his role as the Wild Man since he took to it better than Henry did, and for the two of them to live happily that way. Instead, it was just, “Okay, now neither of you has to do this anymore, isn’t that great?!” It felt like a just clear way to wrap up the story, and I do know that this was intended to be a duology and not continue beyond this point, but it was far from satisfying.

I gave this book 3 stars, but if I were to give half-stars in my ratings, it would be 3.5. It wasn’t a bad story, it was well-written, and it definitely had things to say. But the relationship issues and that abrupt ending rather spoiled a lot of it for me, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the previous novel. Still a good read, and I think most people who liked Silver in the Wood will also like Drowned Country, but for me, it didn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 18, 2019

Summary: There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.

When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.

Thoughts: This short-and-sweet novella had only been out for around a month by the time I read it, but I had heard so many positive reviews of it during that time that I’m surprised I managed to stay spoiler-free. All I knew upon starting to read was that it was very well received, and that the cover art was striking. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Tobias, a man living in the woods of Greenhollow, solitary but for his cat. And the dryads. And other forest-dwellers that humans tend to not see. And he is quite happy living alone, until Henry Silver, new owner of nearby Greenhollow Hall, stumbles across Tobias’s cabin in the middle of a rainy night, the chance meeting starting a friendship that quickly runs deep and turns to something more romantic. The relationship between Tobias and Henry is very sweet, and very enjoyable to watch develop over the course of the story, a sort of slow-burn attachment that shows great devotion and affection between the two of them, even if nothing particularly salacious happens.

Silver in the Wood deals heavily with folklore. Henry Silver presents himself as something of a folklorist, collecting and analyzing the history and stories from around Greenhollow, in precisely the way early folklorists did. The fear that the old ways and traditions were dying out, replaced by modern conventions with no room for the old ways, was a fear amongst many who studied folklore when the field was young, and those aspects needed to be collected and catalogued to prevent them from being lost to the ages. But Tobias himself is part of the folklore told in the region, the Wild Man of the wood, connected to stories hundreds of years in the making. Tesh appears to have drawn on some very common folklore elements and asked not only, “What if this was real?” but also, “How does the old fit with the new? How long can the old endure before change comes, and what happens when it does?”

Silver in the Wood may be short but it packs in quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned folklore aspects, of course. There’s the question of duty and devotion, and how much one can sacrifice before they lose too much of themselves. There’s the matter of betrayal, and the different ways it can manifest. There’s a strong undercurrent of change and evolution throughout the piece, from Tobias’s slow acceptance of company where he previously kept to himself, the way stories and places change over time, to Tobias’s eventual replacement by Henry, at least after a fashion. It’s the sort of story that, on the surface, looks like a rural fantasy with supernatural elements and a queer romance, and it is those things, but beneath the surface, it’s quite thought-provoking on a variety of subjects and thought experiments.

Written with a deft hand, Silver in the Wood is an evocative and compelling story reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, filled with hints at what lurks in the shadows beneath the trees. But also with light that shines down through the leaves, dappling the ground and inviting you to stay a while and relax. Like the forest, it is both. And like the forest, I will want to visit it again later, to re-immerse myself in the rich atmosphere that feels at once real and mundane, and also like I momentarily pulled back the veil and saw a glimpse of what lay beyond.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)