A few years ago, I bought a boxed set of Susan Cooper’s The Darkness Rising series, eager for the nostalgia of English children fighting evil, mythical forces in semi-allegory for real world conflicts. It was, sadly, a disappointing experience because, as an adult, the stories are frightfully simplistic in a way that they weren’t to my spellbound childhood self.
The Willow By Your Side, however, is the perfect grown-up successor to that tradition. Atmospheric and creepy, the tale follows a young boy who is devoted to his troubled, tale-telling older sister as much as to his Great War veteran, PTSD-suffering father (his mother gets short shrift, but she clearly favors the older sister, so that’s rather to be expected.) When his sister goes missing after a particularly fraught chapter in their family history, the boy goes into the nearby woods in search of her and enters a fantastical, hallucinatory world of monsters and history-made-almost-legend. Things get a bit muddled sometimes as we leap between past and present, reality and not-quite-surreality, but the boy’s emotions are a steady throughline guiding us on his quest.
And it’s hard because his emotions are so real and his family so loved yet so damaged that you absolutely understand why everything happens the way it does but you can’t really root for anyone or even be really mad at anyone, much like in real life. The Willow By Your Side hit all my sweet spots: English children in a very English fantasy novel with a tinge of WWI and Roman legionnaires. If that’s the kind of thing you like, too, then I can’t recommend this novel highly enough.