The Green Man’s Challenge

Book cover: The Green Man's Challenge - Juliet McKennaBritain is in the grip of a global pandemic, but an older – and equally dire – threat is awakening up on the Wiltshire chalk. With only uncertain allies and limited resources at his disposal, Dan must unravel secrets from a time even the dryads can’t remember…

It’s the 2020 plague times and being a good lad, Dan’s not going to risk exposing his old Dad or Fin to a deadly virus, so he’s been a lonely man. Choosing to be alone and having to be alone are two very different things, and while he’s perfectly comfortable with the first he’s realised he’s not at all keen on the latter. On the plus side, Eleanor has asked him to move into Blithehurst manor house so he has modern novelties like Wi-Fi and central heating for once; but he has no chance of seeing the people he’d most like to be with.

McKenna tackles the pandemic head-on with an opening chapter that shows even stolid Dan’s mental health can wobble under enough pressure. Isolation is one thing, but being confronted by a situation he can neither control or work through is really taking its toll, so 2020 has been a challenge. It’s all very relatable, but Dan is about to get a big distraction: the Green Man has an even bigger and much less mundane challenge for him (also relatable: the second he has that distraction, Dan compartmentalises like a pro)…

The Green Man books are one of those delightful episodic series that reliably deliver a slice of supernatural, slightly spooky fun. Juliet McKenna has a knack for homing in on aspects of British folklore that resonate with me, with Challenge exploiting the potential of the giant chalk figures carved into our southern hills.

After all, what if they could waken at night and stride across the hills?

It’s not a comforting thought, and Dan singing fee fi fo fum under his breath doesn’t help. McKenna deftly stirs in ancient origin stories that are high on drama and low on helpful (let alone survivable) suggestions for dealing with the threat. At least it’s an excuse to spend some time with Fin… however much her sister Blanche disapproves.

McKenna ups the ante further with a mysterious cryptozoologist who can’t be permitted to uncover Fin’s true nature and a community of enraged hamadryads with scores to settle. The result is a tense mission to uncover the truth behind the myths before any of Dan’s tenuous alliances unravel, as everyone has at least one too many motivations to be entirely trusted.

This outing is high on atmosphere: there’s a searing magic to each appearance of the white horse that gave me a thrill, not to mention the shivers evoked by the horror of groping in the unnatural dark of Wayland’s Smithy. But – and I know I say this every time – I love this series just as much for its refusal to turn its back on the contemporary world it’s set in. Money is tight with a pandemic drying up regular income. Fin must balance sleuthing with her day job and Dan tries to win over her sister with his domestic credentials (no toxic masculinity for this towering woodsman; he knows his way around a hoover). They take the hamadryads to task for not considering consequences, although they’re really more interested in righting past wrongs against their trees than modern notions such as police investigations, judicial process and the evils of modern slavery.

I’m impressed that – four books in – the series isn’t feeling formulaic. Rather, it’s going from strength to strength, with McKenna constantly expanding her mythical world. Happily, The Green Man’s Challenge ends with a promise of more and an intriguing new self-imposed mission that could subtly tweak the course of future books.

I’ll certainly be back for whatever Juliet McKenna serves up next. And I’ll never refer to a shitty bit of work as a bodge job again.