Juliet McKenna, THE GREEN MAN'S CHALLENGE, Wizard's Tower Press, 2021.
The Green Man's Challenge is the fourth volume in a series of self contained cosy contemporary rural fantasy, and like the previous ones, it is a delight to read.
Below the review, you'll find a Q&A with Juliet McKenna. Although the review is as usual entirely spoiler free, the Q&A discusses what happens in the book. A large red banner will warn you that you enter spoiler territory.
It is late summer in 2020 and things are going slowly for Dan since the estate he takes care of is closed due to the pandemic. Until the Green Man appears to send him to help Fin who has seen a giant in Wiltshire.
As usual with McKenna's work, new readers will easily find their bearings even if they jump in the series with The Green Man's Challenge. However, I'd recommend to start with volume 1 (or volume 2 if you really don't want to start from the beginning) to really appreciate the relationships between the characters.
For older hands, it is a delight to meet again with Dan and Fin. Eleanor is sadly only glimpsed through phone calls throughout the novel, but a bonus short story at the end of the volume puts her front and centre. We also meet a new character, Hazel, who is a witch.
To me, the great strength in the characters is how they are all bound in a web of duties related to who they are: family in the case of Fin, the Green Man in the case of Dan, her coven in the case of Hazel, and for all of them, also doing what they feel is right. They precariously balance those (sometimes conflicting) duties and the care of maintaining the secrecy of their supernatural identities while living in today's world, pretending to be part of it, yet at the margins.
This develops quite interestingly in a theme of trust/distrust in The Green Man's Challenge, whether it is between the humans, or with their supernatural allies. The question of alliances and what is owed is really taken a step further in this volume, and McKenna offers us again a supernatural world with complex politics.
It is also a delight to read a novel written by someone who knows her genre so well and works at finding different ways to exploit its tropes. The threat in The Green Man's Challenge is a giant: the hero doesn't have the strength to match the foe, so other ways must be found, ancient knowledge must be discovered again. By doing so, McKenna consciously subverts the expectations of a certain kind of fantasy: no lone hero, no unbelievable physical prowesses, no amazing powers (political or supernatural).
The natural world and its details in this volume simply jumped at me in this novel: the grain of the wood, the soil, and moreover how the human characters move in this natural world.
Finally, the hint of the arc that we've previously seen in The Green Man's Absence is back and I, for one, cannot wait to see where McKenna will lead us because it feels epic. The ending in particular has a feel of Avengers in-a-socially-distanced-way Assemble. (Without the superheroes, and all that, of course.)
The Green Man's Challenge gives you everything you have liked from the previous volumes and adds to it with an incredible attention to details, with relationships that feel more and more complex, and the hint that we're heading towards something you really don't want to miss.
Disclaimer: a free copy was received but with no obligation attached to review it on The Middle Shelf.
Juliet McKenna has kindly answered a few of my questions regarding The Green Man's Challenge and the future of the series.
The questions and their answers contain some spoilers, mostly about the background, the setting and themes, some events and characters, and one major plot point (in Q4 and its answer).
1. The Green Man series is a contemporary rural fantasy and in The Green Man’s Challenge we are in autumn 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. Why and how did you choose to have your story following us in those times?
This is a question that anyone writing contemporary fiction faces at the moment, and there are no easy answers. I’ve noticed a couple of my favourite crime writers have opted for prequels as their next publications, while others are continuing their series without any reference to the pandemic. I thought long and hard about what to do for the best, and took a good look at readers’ comments on the earlier books. A great many people find the solid reality that grounds these stories is a significant part of their appeal. This is recognisably the world we live in – with an added dimension. I felt if I didn’t mention the pandemic at all, that connection would be weakened. Daniel would be living in some other timeline, and that didn’t feel right to me.
I also waited to see what was happening, locally and globally. If this pandemic had burned itself out inside six months in 2020, I would have set this story afterwards, so I didn’t need to refer to it much. However, by January 2021, when I began writing this book, it was regretfully apparent that this coronavirus is going to be a fact of life for a good while to come. So the pandemic had to be a fact of Dan’s life too, but somewhere in the background, and without distorting the book. That’s why the references are non-specific, and only where the story that’s the focus of the novel crosses paths with these new realities. As it turned out, thinking how to approach this aspect of the book was a good way for me to process my own reactions to the past eighteen months.
2. The Green Man's Challenge addresses briefly also the question of immigration and modern slavery. How important is it to you that fantasy addresses social issues?
Including things like this is part of grounding the story so solidly in reality that readers find it’s only a short step to believing in unseen spirits of woods, waters and places. I also think it’s important to highlight the problems of modern British rural life. Any worthwhile book should do more than simply tell a good story. I live in a country area and far too many people, including politicians, only ever see the picture postcard image of the Cotswolds. That means the very real issues of poverty and unemployment, of limited access to public services and housing aren’t being addressed. People need to be aware of this.
When I was researching the background to The Green Man’s Silence, Wisbech Museum had an excellent display on the 18th and 19th century abolitionist movement, as Thomas Clarkson who was born in the town was a very effective anti-slavery campaigner. The museum also included an exhibit about the reality of modern slavery in rural areas today. There was no place for me to use that in the last book, but it stayed in the back of my mind. As I was writing this novel and looking for the answer to a plot question, I realised I could put modern slavery together with a recent story from the local press create something dramatic that would also make an important point.
3. Dan’s carving of the yew stake was a delightful rewriting of the fantasy hero forging his blade. How much fun (and research!) did you have to write that scene?
I’m fortunate to have married a man who’s good with his hands, so I started by asking my husband how he would go about doing this. Once he had explained the uses of a draw knife and a shave horse to me, I went to see what the Internet could add. Writers are incredibly lucky these days that craftspeople and enthusiasts of all kinds post tremendously detailed articles and videos online. Then there are forums and discussion groups where experts share tips and offer advice. When there was something particular that I needed to know, I soon found that someone somewhere had asked the same question as me, and got a whole load of answers that I could draw on. It was fascinating, and yes, a lot of fun, to do this particular bit of research.
4. Most of the supernatural creatures have always been morally ambiguous in your series. Yet, with the hamadryads’ conflict, you have stepped even further. What led you to such a decision?
I’ve never written stories with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. What makes heroes and villains are the choices people make when they’re faced with challenges. Those choices will be influenced by an individual’s character – whether they’re brave or cowardly, selfish or generous – and also by their experiences to that point, by their personal priorities, and by the information they’re working with. As I started to put together the hamadryads’ background, it soon became apparent that they were going to have very different priorities to Daniel, and no particular reason to do what he wants. Does that make them morally ambiguous? The readers can decide.
5. Distrust, and, ultimately, trust, seemed to me to be a really important theme in The Green Man's Challenge. Did it arise naturally through the novel from the contemporary setting and who the characters are or did you consciously head this way from the start?
I never set out to write a novel with a theme or any sort message. My focus above all else is telling a good story. That said, themes inevitably emerge in my writing, though I only ever see them once a book is finished – and readers often point out other things that I haven’t noticed. This is a case in point. If you had asked me about themes, I wouldn’t have mentioned trust. I would have said the story is about the challenges of solving a problem when you can’t find the answers you need because the information simply isn’t there. How do we deal with such uncertainty, especially when lives are at stake? Of course, now that you’ve mentioned trust, I can see that deciding who we can rely on is a key aspect of answering those questions. Why are these things in the background of this novel? If we look at our own lives and at the daily news, we can see the same debates playing out all around us. Themes emerge because every book, to a greater or lesser extent, reflects the times when it is written.
7. Since The Green Man’s Silence, we can see that there are hints of a wider arc getting in place while the novels still remain self contained. What are the challenges of such a choice and, without any spoilers, where are you taking us?
Something I learned while I was writing my earlier epic fantasy series is an underlying timeline will see an internal logic start to gather momentum. This happens even when individual books, or in the case of my epic fantasies an individual trilogy, is still a self-contained narrative. Unless a writer hits the reset button really hard every time, earlier events are going to have an influence on the next story. If a writer tries to dodge this internal logic, readers will definitely notice and they start asking awkward questions. So I can’t get away from the fact that Daniel’s experiences over the past few years are going to influence what he does next. That’s actually a good thing for me as a writer, as it steers me away from the rut of Dan repeatedly stumbling across a supernatural situation that only he can tackle. It’s also a tremendous challenge because I still have to make these individual books readable for anyone who hasn’t picked up the others so far. But something else I’ve learned in twenty-plus years of writing is the tougher the challenge, the better the book will be in the end.
Where is this all taking us – and Daniel? Hand on heart, I simply don’t know. I have a few ideas and plot elements that I shall be exploring with some targeted reading over the next few months. Another thing I’ve learned is to be patient and wait for reading and viewing and chance conversations to reach the critical mass that sparks the next story. Then life gets exciting.
8. The short story with Eleanor at the end was a welcome addition to me since I’ve missed her character. Can we expect more short stories from the point of view of the recurring secondary characters in the future?
I have no idea if there’ll be more short stories, but I’m certainly not ruling them out. This one came about because there was nowhere in this particular novel for the answers I found for some important questions about what the pandemic might mean for Dan’s job. Since he was busy elsewhere, Eleanor was the obvious person to tell this tale, and I certainly had a lot of fun seeing things from her viewpoint, as well as finding her narrative voice. If readers enjoy this story, and a similar situation arises, I see no reason why we shouldn’t hear from someone else in the future.
Many thanks to Juliet McKenna for taking the time to answer those questions!
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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