17 July, 2018

[Review] Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty

Series: Willa of the Wood #1
Release Date: 10 July, 2018
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Genre: Juvenile Fiction/Middle Grade (4-6)/Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Appalachia/Action & Adventure/Mysteries
ISBN: 9781368005845
Edition: Advanced Reader Copy Ebook, Hardback
Rating: ★★★★★
Review Written: 14 July, 2018
Summary:Escape into the story of a brave and unusual girl brimming with the ancient powers of the forest. From Robert Beatty, the author of the #1 New York Times best-selling Serafina books, comes a thrilling new series filled with the history, mystery, and magic of the Great Smoky Mountains. Kirkus Reviews described WILLA OF THE WOOD as "A moving, atmospheric journey of hope."

Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.

Willa, a young night-spirit, is her clan's best thief. She creeps into the cabins of the day-folk under cover of darkness and takes what they won't miss. It's dangerous work--the day-folk kill whatever they don't understand--but Willa will do anything to win the approval of the padaran, the charismatic leader of the Faeran people.

When Willa's curiosity leaves her hurt and stranded in the day-folk world, she calls upon the old powers of her beloved grandmother, and the unbreakable bonds of her forest allies, to escape. Only then does she begin to discover the shocking truth: that not all of her day-folk enemies are the same, and that the foundations of her own Faeran society are crumbling. What do you do when you realize that the society you were born and raised in is rife with evil? Do you raise your voice? Do you stand up against it?

As forces of unfathomable destruction encroach on her forest home, Willa must decide who she truly is, facing deadly force with warmest compassion, sinister corruption with trusted alliance, and finding a home for her longing heart.

See more by Robert Beatty at his Website.

From the moment I opened the first of the Serafina books (Serafina and the Black Cloak), I was in love with Robert Beatty’s writing. His subject matter brought back fond memories of childhood when visiting the mountains was the best vacation I could have. It also brought back my time in Brevard, NC, a small community about 45 minutes southeast of Asheville, and not too terribly far away from Biltmore. I knew the area, I knew the landscape, and I recognized places that he included as settings in the books. In all, the books brought a sense of nostalgia, though they also offered a fantastical set of characters, a mystery worth solving, and just enjoyable fiction. All of this became a reason I jumped at the opportunity to pick this book up as an Advanced Copy on Netgalley. As with most of the books from Netgalley, I am apparently slow, so this review is a few days late considering the book released a week ago from this posting.

Willa of the Woods offers a new setting in the Serafina universe. Instead of being set at the familiar scene of Biltmore, we’re introduced to Clingman’s Dome, a mountain that is right along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Another familiar setting for me, and amusingly enough I rode by the entrance to the trail to hike it on my way home from vacation while reading Willa of the Wood. Willa is the member of an ancient race known as the Faeran people, people who were once so intune with nature that they lived in the heart of the forest and harmed no living thing. They had many woodwitches who could manipulate living trees and on occasion dead ones to weave magnificent halls. Now, however, the clan of Dead Hollow is dying. There are no new children being born into the clan, and with the coming of more and more day-folk (humans), it seems that the future of the clan is in danger.

With the pressing issues involved, the leader of the clan (the Padaran) has create a group of the youngest members of the clan to be thieves from the day-folk. Willa, wanting to be the best, has become bold and sneaks out alone despite the clan’s rule of never going alone. She also breaks the rule of never entering the day-folk’s homes, breaking into a farm along the nearby river. This venture however leads to the beginning of Willa’s greatest troubles. Caught in the act of thieving, Willa is shot by the homesteader. Terrified that he’ll succeed in killing her if he catches her before she returns to the woods, Willa flees, trying to escape into the woods, but ends up cornered in the man’s barn before she can. There she has an encounter that she realizes is never supposed to happen, the man expresses concern for her and regret for shooting. Two things that day-folk aren’t supposed to do. They’re supposed to kill without a care according to the Padaran.

Faced with this conflict of information, Willa escapes and returns to her clan’s home after a side trip with a wolf and a visit to the ancient lake of bears for healing. Though she manages to hide her take from the other Jaetters, Willa still ends up being brought before the Padaran and challenged by the other Jaetters on the grounds that instead of them stealing her take, she takes theirs. Impressed by her ability to outwit her opposition, the Padaran leads her out into the woods through his private chambers (which are stuffed to the brim with dayfolk stuff) where she learns that he’s begun to forsake the old ways and has created a team of Jaetters that go out into the wood and kill animals for their pelts so they can sell them to the day-folk to keep the clan alive.

Things go awry when the Padaran attempts to make Willa stand by while the steel traps lining a path to a wolf’s den, however the den belongs to the wolf leader that Willa knows well. Unable to break the ancient bond with her animal friend, Willa defies the Padaran and ends up tossed out of her home after her beloved Mamaw is killed. Escaping via the underground river, Willa is left in a deep depression that settles into her very being. Uncertain what to do now that she’s removed from the clan and uncertain where else to go, Willa ends up returning to the place where her troubles started, the home of the man she robbed. For a time she simply observes his way of life, curious and confused by his actions. After a short while, she begins to reveal herself to him, first as a quiet presence in the wood, briefly suppressing her natural camouflage ability for him to see her. Slowly a friendship forms between them.

Throughout the rest of the book, Willa is forced to face many beliefs she’s held since childhood and must reevaluate whether or not certain things are truly worth the pain. When she learns why her friend Nathaniel is always sad, she’s forced with a difficult decision of rescuing his family and not being wanted anymore or staying silent on the matter. With a decision she knows might cost her life, Willa sets off to reunite a family and free her clan from the grasp of a Padaran who’s priority in life is to collect more Day-folk stuff and silence the members of the clan who oppose him.

Beatty’s newest book doesn’t disappoint with the fantastical and mythical themes woven throughout the books. This combined with familiar scenarios that children of any age can relate to creates a good balance of learning experience and mystery to readers. This is very true when you consider the author events. This Thursday past (7/12/18), I attended an author event for Willa’s release with the anticipation of meeting Mr. Beatty. Unfortunately for me, there was a line stretching to the back of the store that wove through the aisles, but I was glad to see the large number of children in attendance for the event.

As before, I look forward to the next book in Willa’s series, along with the next book in Serafina’s series as well. Perhaps we’ll see them cross paths more in future books.

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