Robert Holdstock’s Unknown Regions

cover, Unknown RegionsRobert Holdstock is not the finest living writer of the fantastic. That being said, there are precious few other accolades one can withhold from the man or his writing. He has produced a truly remarkable body of work, with his Ryhope Wood saga (Mythago Wood, Lavondyss, The Hollowing, etc.) being both one of the landmark achievements of contemporary fantasy and a remarkable expression of a sort of magical realism. The man is just damned good.

Even when Holdstock does stumble, as he does with Unknown Regions, he gives you something interesting. A trifle next to the Ryhope books, Unknown Regions still provides much of interest. And if it ultimately fails to satisfy, that’s in part because this reader, at least, expects such great things from each and every Holdstock novel that something that’s merely good is below the bar.

The novel concerns itself with a not-terribly ordinary English family, Richard and Susan Whitlock. Richard is an archaeological photographer, while Susan teaches art at Maidstone College, and they are unable to have a child. This changes when they adopt a boy named Michael under somewhat unusual circumstances, circumstances that rapidly grow stranger still as supernatural assaults are made on the boy in his cradle. Susan suspects the child’s birth mother, a mysterious offstage presence, but the truth is stranger still. The setup is suspenseful and original, and the secret of the attacks on Michael is profoundly disturbing.

Unfortunately, from here the book moves in skips and jumps. Richard and Susan finally have a baby of their own, and we discover with shocking – almost unbelievable – abruptness that Richard doesn’t much like Michael. Considering how desperately Richard struggled to protect the boy in the previous sequence, this revelation rings a bit hollow and contrived. Alas, there’s more of the same to follow.

Michael discovers a way to reach into the past to recover artifacts in an attempt to please his father, and there are some genuinely touching moments in the interplay between the two, and with Susan and baby daughter Carol. But again, the story zigs and zags. Richard is suddenly an unemployable drunkard, Michael’s only friend is a too-perfect French psychic investigator named Francoise, and worst off all, Richard somehow gets involved with the mob. The way in which this is handled does much to break the spell of the story; Richard ends up acting like a character from a bad B movie, and it’s painful to watch him do so.

And then, something miraculous happens. Suddenly Michael gets very, very scary. His pent-up rage at his father, his obsession with the Holy Grail, the mystery surrounding his birth – all of them come together for a conclusion that is harrowing and genuinely moving, and which does much to redeem the missteps of the earlier parts of the novel.

Unknown Regions is not a great book. In a few places, it’s not even a good book. It is well worth reading, however, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that Holdstock at his worst is still far better than much of what’s out there. Even when Robert Holdstock takes a wrong turn, the places he takes us are still fascinating, rewarding, and worth visiting.

(Roc, 1996)

Richard Dansky

The Central Clancy Writer for UbiSoft, Richard Dansky has worked in video games for 17 years. His credits include over 40 titles, most recently Tom Clancy's The Division. Richard has also contributed extensively to the World of Darkness tabletop RPGs, and is the developer of the 20th anniversary edition of seminal horror game Wraith: The Oblivion. The author of six novels, including the Wellman Award-nominated VAPORWARE, he lives in North Carolina.

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