Drowned Country is the stunning sequel to Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s lush, folkloric debut. This second volume of the Greenhollow duology once again invites readers to lose themselves in the story of Henry and Tobias, and the magic of a myth they’ve always known.
Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.
The experience of reading this duology is so uniquely its own.
Step inside, and you might feel less like a reader and more like a lost wanderer in an enchanted wood. If you try hard enough, you might smell the green moss drenched with rain, feel the brush of damp leaves against your legs and the watchful gaze of a dryad, like a prickle on your skin. You might hear something that could be a night bird or a fairy skittering out of your path or just the loud, incessant hammering of your heart.
But then it’ll be over, and the illusion will break, and you will lift your head to find yourself in a darkening room, alone. The real world around you coming into sudden, sharp focus.
That is the most poignant and painful gift of any good story, I think—the soft comfort of escape, and the temporary fantasy that maybe, somehow, it all happened.
The August evening was still and warm around them; the whole Wood was still and warm, as if this instant of touch and care might last forever, stretch itself out into an eternal and changeless summer.
Much like its winning predecessor, Drowned Country bears the cadence and syntax of an old, timeless fairy tale, but it also carries the breath of the new about it, and the place where the two meet and blur, rubbing up against each other, held me like swift-running current. It’s also a model of discipline and of economy—everything is deftly balanced and impeccably contained, as taut as a bowstring, and the writing is a pleasure to read, with every sentence exquisitely and lovingly crafted.
Drowned Country is about Henry Silver, and where Tobias Finch’s voice in Silver in the Wood made me want to fold him in a big blanket, worn soft with many washings, and hold his hand and gently run my thumb over his callouses, and generally protect him from the ravages of the world, Henry Silver’s voice made me want to put my head down on a table, and possibly bang my forehead against it a few times.
See… Henry Silver will tell you that he is not sulking. In fact, Henry Silver is perfectly fine thank you very much. That is, if you ignore the way his heart is hanging open on its hinges.
So what if Tobias Finch had packed up and left him, and without him, Greenhollow Hall feels huge and empty, a shipwreck hull? So what if a terrible burst of confession—a little lie sharpened to a knife, slicing true—had washed away the camaraderie and ease they’d earned over the past months, a top-down tumble from sweetness to curdled resentment that had left Henry alone and drifting inside his “thorn-girt fortress” where everything seemed to speak the awfulness of what he’s done?
Henry Silver is the lord of an ancient forest kingdom, able to bend the Wood to his will, as a bow is bent for an arrow, and he is not sulking. Because all this melancholy will pass like the ephemeral squall that it is, and Henry Silver will stay in his thorn-girt fortress where he will try not to slip off an edge into a great pool of darkness, and one day, Tobias Finch’s name will no longer feel like a stab.
But when a visit from Henry’s mother pricks the stillness after a young woman named Maud Lindhurst goes missing, and Tobias Finch believes it to be the work of a vampire, the offer Henry’s mother dangles in front of him—of not only seeing Tobias again, but that other pull, of a mystery left unsolved—flashes in front of Henry like a fishing lure on a sunny day.
Henry can stop sulking long enough to find the missing Maud Lindhurst and then he can “get on with the business of becoming a half-mad monster trapped in the woods for the rest of eternity.” (I found a note in my book right over this quote that says, simply and quite eloquently: “dramatic-ass”.)
Silver in the Wood saw Henry and Tobias slowly, ecstatically stumbling into happiness, and everything was right and correct. In Drowned Country, Henry and Tobias walk next to each other, carrying words neither of them will utter, their conversations filled with nonsense phrases meant to buffer the chilly silence native to any exchange between two people who have spent so long building up their shared fortress and learning to tend it together, only to find themselves suddenly standing knee-deep in its rubble, dust still hanging thick in the air.
The past is set in stone, and Henry Silver, for all his power, is no sculptor—he can’t go back and undo what he already did. And even if Henry could, he would not. “What is love if not selfish?” asks Henry. How many of us have done things we don’t talk about in the name of love and pretended the real unspoken reason wasn’t awful, deflated of nobility or romance? How many of us have clung to the people we loved a little too hard as we choked on our fear and they choked in our grip? How many of us were left behind by someone?
Love is a wave few can keep their heads above. And Henry Silver—though he thought he could navigate it as easily as a child crossing a stream on stepping-stones—was drowning in its tide.
In Drowned Country, Henry and Tobias are like two men standing on two different islands, and neither of them can find a way across. When Henry takes Tobias in again for the first time in two years, Tobias’ whole self into his eyes—his solidity, his roughness, and the most endearing hint of shyness too—he feels the shock of that old love between them, and for a breathless while, everything is the same as it was before. And it wasn’t.
Maybe Henry is right. Maybe love is selfish, but it’s also a lesson where one learns to curtail, and the other learns to forgive, and both learn to keep perspective—and that’s as tenderly articulated in the novel as anything this thoughtful author has put to the page.
I loved you, I love you, doesn’t that damned well matter? and also So what if I lied, so what if I was selfish—what is love if not selfish—so what if I needed you—I still need you—and really, really, Mr Finch, shouldn’t you be theone who’s sorry? Aren’t you the one who left me?
As for other thematic notes, with the introduction of a new character—the bright and ceaselessly curious Maude Lindhurst who would recklessly set out into harm’s blundering pathto chase something that made her believe there was more to the world than what she’d been given—the novel explores the furious desires that can drive one into rooting out what ought to have stayed hidden. It was a language Henry Silver—who was too busy “not sulking” in his thorn-girt fortress for two years—had almost forgotten, a few words coming back at a time. But there it was again—the fell and swoop of his stomach at the thought of something positively mad to do. The world brims with as much varied and impossible wonders as there are fish in the sea, and Henry and Maude keenly understand how the unboundedness of it all might make one feel infinitely small, but gloriously so, as if they were part of something grander than themself.
“Do you know what that’s like—when the impossible becomes true right before your eyes?”
Drowned Country is the perfect conclusion to a wonderful tale. Tobias and Henry’s story will linger long past the last page, bristling along your spine, even when you feel its absence like an itch in your heart.