This review inevitably has spoilers for Silver in the Wood.
Emily Tesh returns to Victorian England to show readers what has happened since the end of Silver in the Wood, and it starts out with a right mess. Henry Silver, fastidious when last seen, has allowed Greenhallow Hall to fall into disrepair, nearly into ruin. Its collapse has progressed enough to allow a dryad to enter, something that could not have happened when the Hall was still a home. Henry himself, no longer lord of the manor but rather of the Wood, is rather worse for the wear, “wearing the ragged remains of what had been one of his better shirts, and no socks or shoes.” (p. 13) He tries to put a brave face on it — “Was he hot the Lord of the Wood, nearer demigod than mortal man, master of time and seasons, beasts and birds, earth and sky?” (p. 13) — but the dryad Bramble has bad news: His mother has come to visit.
Mrs. Silver is not merely a Victorian widow of strict habits and firm views, she is also a practical folklorist, skilled in tracking down England’s bumpier supernatural creatures and ensuring that they do not trouble the good folks just trying to get on with their lives. Permanently, if need be. “Silver had never dared to ask her if she was really still mourning his father or if she just found the sober attire of the widow convenient for her purposes. Hunting monsters could be a messy business. Bloodstains hardly showed on black.” (p. 17) And she is having none of Henry’s melodramatic nonsense. Mr Finch is away in Rothport.
“Your father also liked to sulk,” said Mrs Silver.
“I am not sulking,” said Silver.
“I cannot think what else to call it,” Mrs Silver said, “when a healthy young person insists on building himself a thorn-girt fortress and sitting in it consuming nothing but sour fruit and small beer for months on end.” (p. 19)
It turns out, though, that his formidable mother and the esteemed Mr Finch, who had been Lord of the Wood for some centuries, need Henry’s assistance. A young woman’s life is at stake. As Mrs Silver relates, “The young lady’s name is Maud Lindhurst. She is twenty-one years old. She disappeared a week ago, and Tobias [Finch] and I have been there five days. He believes we are dealing with a vampire. A very old, very clever vampire. Even he has seen only a few of the type.” (p. 21)
Henry is shocked to hear his mother actually asking for help, and he has noted but not fully internalized signs of both her age and a recent injury that has forced a cane upon her. Henry is tied to his Wood, but less tied in time, and can go anywhere that his Wood has been since it arose after the retreat of the glaciers. Very much including the seaside town of Rothport.
“A memory that was only half his whispered to him that the ocean had not been there so long. There had been a broad valley, and half a hundred little rivers, and an unbroken forest cradling half the world stretching all across that silted land. And then, when the world changed and the waters rose, there had been islands still strung out like a chain. Silver could almost see them, each crowned with its last handful of trees.” (p. 23)
When Henry and his mother arrive in Rothport, it is soon clear why Henry had been sulking. Something happened to disrupt the idyll he had shared with with Tobias, and the two of them have reverted to excruciatingly proper formality. If the surface matter of Drowned Country is to be the hunt for the vampire and whatever comes after, one of its deeper currents is to learn what happened between the two of them to leave them firmly separated — though in each other’s lives because of Tobias’ role as assistant to Mrs Silver — and Henry so distraught.
When the vampire hunt gets going in earnest — Henry is appalled to learn that his role in the expedition is to serve as bait — they quickly find that things are very much not as they had expected. Maud Lindhurst, most of all, turns out not to be what Henry had expected. She is everything that a gay, dandyish, wealthy, scholarly Victorian man is unprepared to deal with, and she is having none of Henry’s nonsense. Hilarity ensues until she reveals what she thinks should happen next. Suddenly the three of them are in deep, deeper than they can know. Almost drowned, in fact.
“The Wood?” Tobias said.
“Yes, I suppose so.” Now Silver had brought it up, he could glimpse those islands again, hovering just beyond the edges of time; the darkness below the two of them might have been the broad waters, or it might have been the crowns of an endless expanse of trees.
“What happened to it?” Tobias said.
“It drowned,” Silver said. The last of the sunset was fading from the world behind him; the night was very dark. “It drowned.”
If Tobias answered, Silver did not hear it. A moment later he shook his head hard. The Hallow Wood asked nothing and offered nothing; it only was. Silver could contemplate the drowned forest at his leisure. Possibly he could even go for a walk in it. There were no precise rules to the way time behaved beneath the trees: softening Tobias had called it, back when Silver had felt able to ask him questions of this sort. (pp. 35–36)
There is a happy ending and much is revealed, of course, because at bottom Drowned Country is a romance not a tragedy. It’s engrossing, and takes interesting views on lands and fairies, and how they fit together. All told, I liked it not quite as well as Silver in the Wood, for two reasons. The earlier story is told straight through, whereas this one spends considerable time in flashback because one of the things that readers most want to know is how Henry and Tobias came to be estranged. Tesh eventually fills in enough for readers to see how the characters’ traits, particularly Henry’s vanity and inexperience, led to the break, but it is a filling in rather than something that moves the present story forward. Second, I wanted a different kind of happy ending for Henry and Tobias. I know, it’s not up to the author to cater to my expectations, but dashed hopes surely color my feelings about Drowned Country. At any rate, I hope that “not quite as good as one of the best novellas I have read in a long time” is praising with faint damnation.
There may be more of Finch and Silver, and Silver (Mrs) and Lindhurst for that matter, and I would happily read them. I suspect they will be more human stories, and I suspect that I will miss the Wood whether or not the characters do.