Somewhere in England, in a small town called Strange Ground by the Skea, Ebbie Wren is the last librarian and he’s about to lose his job. Estranged from his parents, unable to make connections with anyone except the old homeless lady who lives near the library, Ebbie isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do next. His only escape from reality is his deep interest in local folklore, but reality is far stranger than Ebbie can dream. On the other side of the sky and the sea, the Queen of House Wood Bee has been murdered. Her sister has made the first move in a long game, one which will lead her to greatness, yet risk destruction for the entire Realm. She needs the two magical stones Foresight and Hindsight for her power to be complete, but no one knows where they are. Although the sword recently stolen by Bek Rana, small time thief and not very good at it, might hold a clue to their location . . . and to stopping the chaos. But all Bek wants is to sell the sword and buy herself a better life. She’s not interested in being a hero, and neither is Ebbie. But someone is forcing their hand and playing for the heart of the Realm. Ebbie and Bek are destined to unite. They must find a way to stop the destruction of House Wood Bee, save the Realm, and just maybe save themselves in the process. All victories come at a price. The Oldungods are rising. And they are watching…
Thank you to NetGalley and Orion Publishing Group for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.
As soon as I read the blurb for this book, I simply had to request it! I also loved the title, and the play on words of it, whether it’s intentional or not. Also, have you seen that cover? It’s incredible. If I saw that in a shop I’d probably buy it with no further questions. This was also my first Edward Cox book, and I was excited to dive into his works because I’ve heard so many great things. Other than that, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into this book – the blurb is enticing but doesn’t reveal much of the story, so I went into it ready to be swept off to unknown places. And now I am back from my adventures, so with honeyed tea in hand, I am here to tell you all about it.
‘They say that in the Realm, the sea is in the sky…’
So starts The Wood Be Queen, a story spanning the Earth and the Realm, where the sea really is in the sky! I was delighted by this, and by the description of rolling waves high above, the sun shining through them. I love the idea of there being a town called Strange Ground by the Skea on earth and one called Strange Ground Beneath the Skea in the Realm. And I absolutely love the fact that in the Realm the messenger birds of choice are seagulls. It’s such a cool detail, and it made me smile each time it was mentioned.
The first character we meet is Mai, a homeless woman in Strange Ground by the Skea, and on the night events begin she receives a message from a gull, with the words We have failed. Come home. written on it. It is immediately intriguing and shows there might be more to this woman that appearance dictates. This first chapter with Mai is such a strong beginning, and if you want a feel for the book I’d highly recommend you listen to Edward Cox himself reading the opening pages during Gollancz Fest@Home (his section begins at 10:35, which you can skip to by clicking the time in the description).
Mai, with her mysteries, is the one that pulls Ebbie Wren, our hero, into the story. Ebbie has been friends with Mai for a few years, believing her only to be a strange yet wise woman who lives on the streets, but on the last day of his job at the closing Library of Strange Ground, he finds himself in the possession of a strange satchel containing a letter from his missing friend, a ring that sounds like the crashing of waves, and an unusual lantern in need of a candle. From there, he is catapulted into the Realm, and is pulled toward Bek Rana, a thief in Strange Ground Beneath the Skea, who wants nothing to do with Ebbie’s appointed mission: find the missing Heir to the Wood Bee Throne and save the Realm from Yandira Wood Bee, the Queen’s sister who has made a dark deal with Lady Persephone of the Underworld, and has seized power as Empress of the Realm.
There are a lot of threads in this story, many characters scattered throughout the Realm and our world, all being pulled slowly together like woven threads, and I won’t mention all of them, because Bek and Ebbie are, for me, the two principal characters. They are the ones on the quest, the others all pieces in a game being played by the Uldonfolk, the gods of the Realm. Now, the Uldonfolk are fascinating; I mentioned Persephone, and the other principal one is Lady Juno, the High Queen, and the events that unfold are being moved along by the game they are playing against one another. I really enjoyed the way their names are pulled from Roman mythology, but their behaviour and traits have been reshaped by the author to create something new. They have retained that element of unpredictability though, and sometimes reading The Wood Bee Queen felt a bit like reading the Iliad, in which our heroes are at the mercy of the whims of the gods.
‘What difference would ridding the Realm of Yandira make ultimately, when the Oldunfolk could be so perversely ambivalent about who to save and who to damn in this sickening game of Theirs?’
It can feel a bit like deus ex machina, because everything has been lined up for the characters by forces beyond their control, so a lot of their journey is reactionary instead of pro-active. In this sense, it does have the feel of an older story, an old folk tale told around the fire. This threw me off a few times, especially at the start when some of the characters hadn’t been fleshed out as much and seemed to be solely archetypal, but as I went along I did see that at the heart of this story are still the choices of the little folks. In some way this reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, in which the hobbits are up against such huge forces, but in the end it is the small choices they make that determine the course of the future. It’s something very different to the current trends of fantasy, and it certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but I really enjoyed this story full of hope, magic, and wonder. I think it’s something the world needs right now, the idea that ‘When darkness comes, lighteness must follow, but never to shine upon a clear and easy road…’ There is light and there is dark, and there are the choices we make to change the world around us. This story is a beautiful reminder of that, and I hope others will enjoy it as much as I have.
All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof copy and may not reflect the final work.
Published: 10th June 2021 by Gollancz
Narration style: third person past tense, multiple points of view
Format read: eARC
Copy owned: not yet, preordered
Trigger Warnings: some descriptions of murder, torture, and mental enslavement/control