When Young Adult Fantasy Turns Adult (Hexwood Reviewed)


The winner for the most misleading back cover blurb goes to Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood, which is being marketed along with the rest of Ms. Wynne Jones’ work as a fun young adult fantasy. The blurb begins with a quote, which I will reprint here and leave you to think a moment about the sort of book you might expect to see upon reading it.

“All I did was ask you for a role-playing game. You never warned me I’d be pitched into it for real! And I asked you for hobbits on a Grail quest, and not one hobbit have I seen!”

To tell you how out-of-context this quote was taken, let me mention that it was spoken on page 340 (the book is 384 pages long) by an incidental character that the other characters in the scene immediately dismiss as insane. If you go into this book expecting a Grail quest, a role-playing game parody and hobbits, you’ll be disappointed. There will be no hobbits. On the other hand, there is a Grail quest and a lot of role playing, but not in the way you would expect.

Hexwood is a remarkable book, from an author who has already shown a remarkable range. It is a complicated, violent and disturbing epic describing a centuries-long power struggle, and it is masquerading as a young-adult fantasy. You will be surprised, and you may enjoy it, as long as certain elements don’t creep you out.

The story is about a wood, Hexwood, in southern England which has been taken over by an ancient power known as the Bannus. In Hexwood’s universe, Earth’s population is actually comprised of the descendents of thousands of convicts shipped from a human empire that spans the galaxy. This human empire is run by a powerful pentumverate known as the Reigners, who have lived for thousands of years and become exceptionally corrupt. Earth is being mined for flint, the most precious substance in the galactic empire, and the humans on Earth are being kept in the dark about their origins, and flint’s true value.

Various forces want to topple the corrupt Reigners. Into this, the Bannus acts as a gigantic wild-card. It embues Hexwood with special qualities, which take it out of time and make it function much like the human memory. People who enter the wood end up jumping forward and backward in their own timelines, remembering their own pasts and futures to differing degrees depending on where they are in the wood.

The Bannus has the capability of creating a gigantic fantasy world, with the people who enter it posing as characters. It can reenact various scenarios through infinity, testing out every permutation and combination before it comes out with the best result. The Reigners fear that somebody is using the Bannus to try and come up with a scenario that topples their regime, but every person they send into Hexwood to shut off the Bannus simply gets incorporated into the increasingly complex fantasy scenario. So, of course, to get the job done, they decide to go to Earth and do it themselves.

And somehow this all connects with the legend of King Arthur.

The greatest strength of Hexwood — what makes it a fascinating read for me, at least — is Wynne Jones’ ability to play with the story’s sense of time. She has used the Bannus to mangle up the plots so that it’s almost impossible to tell where the story begins and where it ends. Only after slogging through the 300+ pages do you get some idea of where things are actually going and where they’ve been. This disorienting style works to the book’s advantage, giving you just enough material to stave off complete confusion and frustration, but leaving you baffled nonetheless.

Consider the case of Ann Stavely, a twelve-year-old daughter of a shopkeeper living near Hexwood who becomes involved in events and gives the novel its nominal claim to being a young adult fantasy. She wanders into Hexwood, inadvertantly releases a powerful wizard named Mordion from stasis, talks to him, then leaves. She then goes into Hexwood, meets Mordion at a different point in his timeline, talks to him about things she doesn’t yet know about, then leaves. And then realizes that she’s only entered Hexwood once.

And during her first visit, she’s so alarmed by Mordion’s appearance that she runs, stumbles, cuts her knee on an exposed stone, and climbs a tree. Mordion addresses her while she’s in the tree, telling her he means her no harm but explains that he has to fight the Reigners, whoever they are. He’s been doing so for centuries, before they put him in statis. To come at them in a different way, he asks Ann for help — specifically, permission to use her blood, some of which is still fresh on the stone where she cut her knee. When she reluctantly agrees, Mordion cuts his arm and adds a drop of his blood to her spatter, at which point a ten-year-old boy grows out of their mixed blood, gets up and ambles away.

Yeah, I paused at that point too. I paused again when Ann chastized Mordion for allowing the boy to go running off on his own. “Why don’t you look after him?” Mordion asks. “After all, he’s half yours.”

Of course, Mordion does look after the boy, Hume, who is essentially their son. As Ann leaves and reenters Hexwood, she sees Hume grow up in a series of jumbled episodic events. These scenes are among the highlights of Hexwood

There is some serious stuff here. The Reigners don’t topple easily and they can be exceptionally violent. Wynne Jones, to her credit, relies on implied violence rather than anything graphic, which of course makes the effect that much worse to any reader who has a half-decent imagination. There is also a sexual edge in places that Wynne Jones refuses to shy away from and, although I as a reader was mildly disturbed, I think the story is the better for it. Wynne Jones manages to push boundaries, raising Hexwood far above the standard fare.

It’s not perfect. The Reigners are not only evil and corrupt, they’re also boring politicians, who spend way too much of their time watching videos of the events that have occurred and explaining things to each other that they already know, primarily so that the readers can figure out what’s going on. The Turkey City Lexicon has a few things to say about this technique (see “As you know, Bob”). I can also complain about Wynne Jones’ use of ping-pong point-of-view, where the story’s POV shifts from character to character within scenes. This was drilled out of me to the point that I had to go through some hoops in order not to lose plot elements in The Unwritten Girl, so I don’t see why Wynne Jones should get away with it here.

But once the Reigners leave their sheltered confines and actually try to do something about the Bannus, the story fires on all cylinders. There is considerable action, and Wynne Jones has me actively behind those who are out to topple the Reigners, even though these individuals are steeped in blood themselves.

Hexwood is a complex, challenging and rather adult story in the guise of a young adult fantasy. Parents of young teens might want to read this story first before they recommend it to their children. That way they can be guaranteed a good read, while they assess whether the story is really age appropriate. And even if parents decide the story might be too adult for their children, I suspect the children might read it in secret anyway, and get a huge kick out of it.

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