Desert magic shines in Terri Windling’s fantasy novel The Wood Wife

Wood Wife cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Fantasy fans likely know Terri Windling primarily as an anthologist, editor of collections of modern fairy tales with co-editor Ellen Datlow including Black Thorn, White Rose, The Green Man, A Wolf at the Door, and others.  Now Windling’s own original novel, The Wood Wife (1996) is getting a new release from Tor Books as part of its “Tor Essentials” library of books.

Readers (and writers) who came of age in the 1990s will find much here that feels like coming home to a familiar landscape.  Windling’s tale of magic in the American desert, and the humans seduced by it, is at once a murder mystery, a story about art and artists, and a haunting fairy tale.  The Wood Wife is a classic example of American fantasy at its finest.

When a poet she’s never met dies and leaves writer Maggie Black his remote home in Arizona, Maggie seizes the chance to leave her nomadic life behind and settle in the stark and beautiful Sonoran Desert near Tucson.  Hoping to write a biography of Davis Cooper, the poet she wrote her college thesis on, Maggie eagerly digs into his papers, not realizing she’s opening the door to more than just his past.  Strange things begin to happen: objects and people go missing, she has mysterious encounters with even more mysterious strangers, and she begins experiencing rumbles of unearthly dangers.  As Maggie grows to understand the desert, she also uncovers its underlying magic, learning it’s as full of folklore, fairy life, and magic as anywhere in Western literature.

The Sonoran Desert and the cityscape of a growing Tucson form the backdrop for Windling’s enchanting fairy tale.  Alongside suburban sprawl, a bustling arts scene, and Tex-Mex cuisine are shapeshifters, chimeras, ghosts, witches, a wild hunt… archetypes of fantasy literature we typically see in European-inspired settings.  Windling imbues them with a uniquely American, intrinsically Southwestern spirit that feels both utterly natural and eerily unsettling.

The Wood Wife skillfully balances and interweaves its many influences, from classic folklore, to contemporary fantasy art, to music; and the reader never feels left behind or overwhelmed by unfamiliar references.  Reminiscent of works by Delia Sherman (who wrote the foreword), James P. Blaylock, Patricia McKillip, and Peter S. Beagle, this is a contemporary fantasy that pulls its magic from the American landscape and finds the fantastic lurking in the shadows of the ordinary.  Windling’s prose is lovely and magical, but always accessible—a testament to her editorial skill in addition to her talents as a storyteller.

A must-read for fairy tale fans and students of American fantasy literature, The Wood Wife is out in a new trade paperback edition published by Tor, available here at Amazon.

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