Something’s Waiting in the Bushes of Love: A Review of Emily Tesh’s Greenhollow Duology

Silver in the Wood (2019) by Emily Tesh

“There’s a lot of interesting stories about Greenhollow Wood, I know,” said Silver. “But that’s all they are—folktales. There are no dryads, no wild men, no fairy kings, and no monsters. Is that right, Mr Finch?”

“Certainly haven’t seen a fairy king yet,” said Tobias.

Even though I am a longtime fan of the fantasy genre, I have somehow managed to stay out of the waters of the romantic fantasy/paranormal romance sub-genre. Standing at its shore, it seems to me to be a shallow sea teeming with Twilight novels and their closely related kins. I was labouring under the impression that it is a cottage industry in literature primarily concerned with quenching the thirst for intimate relations with every kind of exotic fantasy beings out there—beings such as sexy vampires, sexy werewolves, sexy fairies, sexy angels, sexy demons, sexy wizards and sexy centaurs—no matter how challenging it is anatomically. Why? I believe it was plain genre snobbishness on my part. Whether I wanted to admit to myself or not, I must have thought that romance is a frivolous genre, much in the same way that capital L literary fiction authors, secure in their ignorance, have condemned fantasy as frivolous as well. Thankfully, I have gotten better in recent years.

Emily Tesh’s debut works, Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country (together known as the Greenhollow Duology) is focused on a sexy mythical figure known as the Green Man, who is an enigmatic but ill-defined fertility or nature deity. Tobias Finch is a “wild man” who lives in a cottage deep in Greenhollow Wood, and is thought by the townsfolk to be mad or dangerous—though in truth his true nature is actually much stranger. The story began when his nominal landlord, the young and attractive Henry Silver paid him a call after moving into the nearby Greenhallow Hall. Even before I read this pair of books, I crassly joked about how “Silver in the Wood” might be sexual innuendo because I’m an irrepressible jerk.

Anyway, this jerk thinks that the Greenhollow Duology is one of the best things he read all year. And he read both, one after another, in a single sitting.

Drowned Country (2020) by Emily Tesh

The fact that both books having a combined page count of 288 is not indicative of an anorexic story. Rather, Ms Tesh has an preternatural talent in maintaining an economy of prose without making the books feel spartan, because they seem incredibly lush and rich to me. I have read thousand-page bricks which contain less content. In my past encounters with fantasy novels which have a stronger focus on romance, I find that the fantasy elements within them often feel thin and unsatisfying—but not Silver in the Wood or Drowned Country. Ms Tesh built a world that felt both deep and cavernous while never losing sight of how the story is about the relationship between Finch and Silver, which is alternatively playful, sweet, heartbreaking, joyful, and wholesome. It’s not all sunbeams dancing through pretty foliage for them, you know. They are constantly challenged by mundane and fantastic threats, by troubles both internal and external such as time and immortality, selfishness and deceit, and on occasion, the urgent need for a bit of good old-fashioned rescuing. But it is all always handled so thoughtfully and tenderly that one can’t help but root for them.

And surrounding it all is the Greenhollow Wood which has the feel of one of the last wild, verdant places in the world. It invokes a sense of longing, mystery, and melancholy much like Mr Tolkien’s Old Forest or Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings, or the hills where Miyazaki-san’s Totoro dwells. It made me miss something I have never really experienced, as if the loss is ancestral and coded right into every fibre of my being. I yearn to spend more time beyond time within, and one can only hope that Ms Tesh would be so obliging as to write more volumes.

“What do fairies feel like?” he’d asked. “When you feel them.”

Tobias had thought about it a little while.

“Old,” he’d said at last. “Sad.”

I believe that the most important skill any author can have is in writing great characters because I’ll happily read about them doing the most rote and clichéd things so long as I can identify with them, and in this, Ms Tesh proves to be immensely skilled as well. Silver in the Wood is told from the perspective of Finch while Drowned Country puts us in Silver’s head, and they both feel like separate people with dimensions to them that takes up space within the pages and in our hearts. And it’s not just the two lead characters—even less central ones like Adela (Silver’s mother), Maud Lindhurst, and Bramble shine under Ms Tesh’s pen. The plots of both books are alluring as well, and Ms Tesh had me arriving at every development, twist, or reveal at precisely the perfect pace.

Frankly, it is maddening how good, how fully-formed a writer Ms Tesh is when she erupted into the literary scene out of nowhere. It’s like she hatched with brilliant wings without having to pupate. I don’t care who you are or what you like, but if you must read one author this year, make it Emily Tesh. Make it the Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country.

P.S. No prizes for guessing what the title of this post is in reference of.

Rating: 5/5 Naga Pearls

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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