Monday, September 16, 2013

Holding onto the Wind: The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root by Christopher Pennell

Every night Carly stayed in her room, drinking hot tea and sitting in her chair by the little brick fireplace she felt so lucky to have. She read books, waiting for the sun to rise, so that she could finally go to sleep and leave the lonely, wakeful hours behind.

She also dreamed of a life in the sunlight, outside of her little room that too often felt like a prison, despite its coziness.

But that was asking too much, she knew.

She would settle for a friend.

With no one but a rather indifferent aunt, the orphaned and seemingly bewitched Carly is so lonely that when she hears the faint sound of a violin in the night, she is drawn to see who is playing. In what seems like a dream, Carly finds a solitary rat, seated beside a large squash on her roof, fiddling disconsolately.   She follows him into his strange nighttime world, where trios of such rats have always played for  friendly, dancing owls, a world where the roots of the whistle root trees are the musical rats' only protection from now marauding owls and from an even more sinister creature, the Griddlebeast, who has been freed to roam the woods and destroy all who would seek to preserve the fragile remnants of a dimly remembered Moon King's domain.

When Carly follows the fiddling rat into the woods that night, she makes a friend, the anxious and cryptic Lewis, who takes her to a secret underground city of rats, living in charmingly carved little wooden houses under the venerable leadership of Breeza Meezy. The ancient leader studies Carly's face and then leads her to a human-sized wooden throne carved with the crescent moon and welcomes her as the hoped-for Moon Child who will stop the steady disappearance of their musicians, who seem to have lost their power over the owls of the forest.

Carly vows to help and soon learns to fly with the breeze by seeking its mysterious footholds, the tisks, and even finds an ally of sorts, a boy named Green Pitcher, living in a cabin concealed underground beneath their school's library, but even so, an encounter with the Griddlebeast and its ominous whispers convinces her that to save Whistle Root Wood, she must find something called the Crank and perform an act than has not happened since the Moon King's banishment.

Christopher Pennell's debut fantasy novel, The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is imbued with an engaging atmosphere of darkness and mystery, a dreamlike midnight tale filled with characters reminiscent of those found by Alice when she followed that White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. Fans of  mildly scary fantasies, long on quirky animal characters and imaginative adventures, will find the mood and characterizations intriguing, as, in the best fantasy tradition the orphan heroine finds a loving welcome as the dark forces are subdued, at least long enough for Carly to find a friend and a new home with Green's Granny.  Artist Rebecca Bonds' many woodcut-styled illustrations add charm and ambiance to this tale, and some readers may find its homecoming closing satisfying,  but with many loose ends in the plot and no bridging premise to explain the motives behind the whispers of the villainous Griddlebeast and the dark force lying behind him, more literal minded readers can only hope for a sequel--one which will perhaps knit up all of these dangling threads left blowing in those magical breezes of Whistle Root Wood.

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