(This review first appeared on StaticMultimedia.com on July 6, 2009)
A group of nine people head out on what should be a live fantasy role playing game, but it develops into a violent test of survival in Andrew Richardson’s latest book The Wood. This suspenseful novel will please readers who love tales of unbeatable odds like Scott Smith’s The Ruins. Richardson turns up the dial to eleven on the graphic violence in some parts, so squeamish readers, beware.
Kath Mahoney, the main character, has co-authored a book that debunks superstitions surrounding Celtic myths and legends. Her plans to celebrate the upcoming release include participating in “The Irish Myth Quest” a live Celtic role playing game set up in a remote part of the Irish countryside. She and her undergrad research assistant Aaron meet up with friends Max and Pippa at the designated site to wait for her collaborator, historical novelist Darren Buchanan. When the small group is assembled, they are told by the “Arch-druid” that the gods will not favor their journey unless the group totals nine. By luck several backpackers arrive to round out their number and the group is sent on its way with a warning never to stray off the path.
Emerging from what seems an authentic tomb beneath a mound, the nine friends and strangers find themselves on a path lined on both sides with skulls. Soon they become aware that the wood surrounding them holds man-wolves who can rip apart prey with the swipe of a clawed hand and Fomorians, grossly deformed humanoids. Most of the evil beings seem able to touch the band of travelers unless they cross the path’s boundaries or its line is broken. Kath and her companions expect well-done special effects to entertain them on their adventure, but as they test the limits of the supposed magical boundary, it soon becomes apparent why the swords they were given are real: they have entered the actual Celtic Otherworld and the threat of death is real, not part of game of make-believe.
The Wood delivers enough gore, fights to the death, and desperate flights for safety to satisfy any horror fan. The skilled pacing and the gruesome fantasy elements cry out for it to be made into a movie. With the right script and production values this could be Underworld-meets-Aliens good.
If Richardson taps into the potential shown in this novel and polishes up his style, he could easily go beyond a simple thrills-and-chills level writer and become a big name in the suspense and horror genres. Even though this is meant to be a page turner—and succeeds in that—in some cases the tidbits of Celtic lore he weaves into the story could be explored in more depth and form a stronger connection to the characters’ dilemmas and reactions. With several of the characters established as experts in the myths and legends, there was ample opportunity for additional unobtrusive exposition, which could have produced a richer experience for the reader.
The Wood is Richardson’s second published novel. His first, Andraste’s Blade, published in 2005 by Dark Realm Press, is available on Amazon. For more about the author and his work visit http://ajrichardson.tripod.com/id8.html.