Some twenty, twenty-five years ago, I recollect a lot of scorn poured on the pastoral fantasy. Which is fine—no every subgenre pleases every reader, blah blah—but (as people will) the pastoral novel was derided as being not only twee but backward-looking, especially compared to the Cool New Cyberpunk, which was all about the edge of the future.
Of course there were readers who cheerfully admitted to liking both. I remember rolling my eyes and bailing discussions as soon as they devolved into if-this-is-good-that-has-to-be-bad. Especially when “pastoral” was narrowly defined as twee stories about sweetly eccentric English hedge witches and revampings of Beatrix Potter. (To which I once responded, have you actually reread Beatrix Potter recently? Or the poetry of William Blake?)
Anyway, for whatever reasons, pastoral fantasies largely went out of fashion, at least I hadn’t seen any until this month when two came out within days of each other. They contained a lot of similar elements, they were not set in an idyllic England, and they are very, very not twee.
Before I talk about them, I want to address what I think pastoral fantasy is. This is an old form that resurfaces every few generations, in art, poetry, and fairy tales. It’s not always twee or cute, though there is an emphasis on natural beauties. But pastoral fantasy can explore beauty that is dangerous, inspiring but unsettling, powerful and even subversive because it has not been neatly clipped into box hedges, cemented over, and civilized into an urban pretense of order.
Pastoral fantasy is not grimdark, which emphasizes the ugly and grinds down the dispossessed; it permits the tangle of the forest to get its roots and leaves into the urban walls and streets. Pastoral fantasy can be dark and dangerous but also full of beauty, hope, and tenderness: you can die in the same wilderness you go to experience peace, beauty, and calm. Alone in nature, you become aware that you are not the most powerful force there.
I think that that is the most important distinction of pastoral fantasy: that humans are not the most powerful force.
Neither of these two new novels take place in fantasy England: Uprooted is set in a semblance of eastern Europe, and Crimson Bound in a fairy tale France circa the seventeenth century—which was a time of dynamic change.
In both, the woods play a fundamental roll—a threatening, dangerous, horrific role. Some of the most evocative writing in both books is about the forest and its dangerous nature.
From Crimson Bound:
Erec led them through the Chateau, and it was almost the forest. Bleeding through the marble hallways, Rachelle saw labyrinthine paths between trees whose branches wove together overhead until they seemed like a single plant.
Birds called with warbling, half-human voices. The wind dug its fingers into her hair, burned at her eyes.
There was a falling tree stretching across the space, a giant, its trunk taller across than I was. Its fall had opened up this clearing, and in the middle of it, a new tree had sprung up to take its place.
But not the same kind of tree. All the other trees I’d seen in the Wood had been familiar kinds, despite their stained bark and the twisted unnatural angles of their branches: oaks and black birch, and tall pines. But this was no kind of tree I had ever seen.
It was already larger around than the circle my arms could make, even though the giant tree couldn’t have fallen very long ago. It had smooth gray bark over a strangely knotted trunk, with long branches in even circles around it, starting high up the trunk like a larch. its branches weren’t bare with winter, but carried a host of dried-up silvery leaves that rustled in the wind, a noise that seem to come from somewhere else, as though there were people just out of sight speak softly together.
I’d say both books are New Adult or above; both are centered around seventeen year old girls who gain terrific powers, tackle adult relationships, and fight their way against terrible odds. Uprooted is pastoral fantasy but also horror, and Crimson Bound, while not horror, is more of a dark fantasy; while it doesn’t have the Die Hard bodycount of Uprooted, it is no slouch in dealing with duels and death.
And in both the woods are compellingly dangerous.
In spite of these similar elements, they are very different books. To read one is not at all to have read the other. I talk about them more specifically on Goodreads here and here; though they head in different directions (and I’m not getting more specific lest I tread into spoiler territory) , there is one important element they share: their exploration of female emotional growth, and agency.
These heroines are not looking backward, nor are the thematic elements of their stories. They are playing out, in entertaining format, what life will be like for young women moving into positions of authority. That includes the cost of moral and ethical choices, and the inexorable ramifications of decisions made when you have the power to effect others’ lives.
Both are immersive, compelling reads, and in spite of the retro-fantasy setting, have a great deal to say about issues right now.