Throwback Thursday: The Green Man’s Heir

Book cover: The Green Man's Heir - Juliet McKenna (a stylised leonine or ursine face made of leaves, cast in gold or bronze)Daniel Mackmain’s life gains a new complication when an evening walk in the woods puts him near a murder scene without much of an alibi. Dan has his reasons for keeping to himself – but his closely-kept secrets make him look awfully suspicious…

Dan Mackmain isn’t your average carpenter. He’s a damn good one, as he should be: he’s a dryad’s son. Welcome to a British Isles still quietly inhabited by legends, where nature spirits still care for the land as best they can and threats lurk behind every folktale. Dan looks as human as the next ruggedly handsome young man, but his heritage means he can see dryads and boggarts – and that’s about to get him into trouble.

Dan isn’t breaking the law by foraging for fallen wood for his craft business, and he certainly had nothing to do with the brutal assault on a young woman that happened nearby. But a loner with a buzzcut who can’t meet your eyes is a red flag to a policeman. After all, he can hardly tell them he’s being distracted by the local dryad, Tila.

Cue an atmospheric rural fantasy thriller, in which our hero is the only man in town who stands a chance of figuring out what’s going on – and will never be able to convince anyone else of what happened. It’s a neat hook: to investigate the crimes (there are soon more), he will make himself look ever more suspicious. But Dan is a good bloke; he cannot stand by and allow the evil taking over the woods to flourish, even if it means making himself ever less welcome in the small, gossipy community he has only recently joined. 

Juliet McKenna’s narration is as down to earth as her hero and her setting is pleasingly authentic. Dan has very familiar concerns alongside his murder problem, from a nosey landlady to the economic challenge of craft fair margins, not to mention trying to ensure his sleuthing doesn’t get in the way of his day job. His building site workmates are thoughtlessly offensive, and McKenna rarely misses an opportunity to touch on the issues facing rural communities. It all feels very real, until you factor in the sexy women in the woods and the Green Man haunting Dan’s dreams.

…which brings us neatly to one of my (extremely subjective) discomforts. Our hero is catnip to women – and at times acutely conscious of their effect on him. The nature spirits he interacts with are intensely attractive and enjoy being provocative. Insert your own puns about wood here, but I’m just not very interested in so many sexual undercurrents in my fiction.

I was also less than enamoured of Dan himself. He’s a good man, but for all his community problem-solving, he’s pretty self-absorbed. My reading notes are littered with comments such as ‘it’s not all about you, Dan’ and eye-rolling at his dedication to being alone (because he can’t imagine an ex who would keep his secrets. Whut. Dream a little better, darling). He also has a crude streak that sometimes looks a lot like unacknowledged misogyny.

Thankfully, both Dan’s adventures and the world-building are engaging, and his company never felt so onerous that I switched off. The plot trips along at a good pace, and I enjoyed the combination of mundane and supernatural challenges that Dan had to overcome. However, I nearly tripped up over the unexpected hand-off to a new threat two-thirds of the way through the book when Dan goes to visit Tila’s relatives.

On the plus side, this introduces Eleanor Beauchene – a character I genuinely liked, whose conflict with her controlling dryad ancestors adds an interesting dimension to the ‘legends living amongst us’ concept. To my further delight, the monster riffs off the Lambton Worm, a legend I grew up with (transposed here to a Staffordshire setting). But whilst there is a little foreshadowing, this secondary plot has a tenuous connection at best to the tale of the murderous wose. Consequently, it feels less like a third act climax than a fresh narrative unexpectedly shoehorned in at the end. For my money, this doesn’t do justice to the Blithehurst Worm and Beauchene family drama, which have more than enough meat on their bones to merit a book in their own right.

I finished The Green Man’s Heir having found much to admire, but feeling a little dissatisfied. Fast forward six weeks, however, and I find myself itching to pick up the sequel, The Green Man’s Foe.

I’m in need of an entertaining diversion, so a tense folkloric thriller appeals. I’m not particularly interested in Dan, but I don’t dislike him. Better still, I do like the world Juliet McKenna conjures here, full of ancient threats and powerful spirits rubbing along with our world on their own terms. I also enjoy McKenna’s prose, as adept at evoking bustling village pubs as the unnerving darkness of the woods at night, and at giving substance to even peripheral characters, who always feel like they have a life beyond what we see in the pages.

As for our hero, maybe Dan can win me over if we spend a bit more time together.