Living in New Jersey, I grew up listening to a lot of legends and weird stories. The two that stuck the most however were the stories of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the Jersey Devil. Only Welles could have pulled off a performance so well that people actually thought we were being invaded, with ground zero being the pine barrens of New Jersey. The pine barrens also just happen to be the home of our state’s most famous resident the Jersey Devil, who, depending who you talk to, is either little more than a goat with bat wings or the purest representation of evil this side of the Mississippi. Those stories, among others, have gone on to add to a level of mystery and absurdity concerning the state and the people that live here and honestly thats the way we like it. I know all of these seem disjointed and unnecessary but somehow War of the Woods takes those diverging elements and the inherent weirdness from within the borders of the garden state while throwing in a folksy adventure with a cast of forest critters to make one of the most endearing and entertaining things I’ve read in a long time.
War of the Woods, written and illustrated by Matthew Petz, centers on a family of otters, Father Nathaniel and his son Phin, as they witness the beginnings of an actual alien invasion. From there they convener with the other animals of the forest to determine what their role in all this would be and in an effort to find out what these alien invaders actually are, they head off to find the oldest and most villainous creature in the woods (from my previous paragraph you can probably guess who) and along the way the creature reveals the secret to stopping the aliens. So Phin along with his father, friends (such as the wise turtle Issaac that Phin ties to his head for faster travel) and some new allies (the royal British messenger bird chip chap and Canadian badger Mur D’eau) set off to try and deter the invasion before it gets any worse.
I’ll openly admit I mostly chose this out of our review pool because of the New Jersey connection. Then when I
saw that it had talking animals my reaction was less than enthusiastic. However over the course of the book my reaction slowly got more more and more positive towards the books protagonists as Petz makes them relatable and explains why an attack on humans would matter to them. There is an idea, albeit a brief one, of how we exist in a global community and that the loss of one species would effect all the others. It’s the sort of thing you would imagine an environmentalist would say, but without the condescending brow beating. In this story, helping those who may not help you back is just the right thing to do.
Petz also illustrates the book and he has a style very well suited for this kind of story. He has the eye for detail of a nature artist but also has a great grasp of action sequences that keeps the flow of the book going at a pretty decent pace while the alien menace really does come off as otherworldly and never loses its urgency. Another big plus for this book is that even though the the main characters are animals they’re not anthropomorphic. They don’t wear clothes, their faces are actually animalistic, and the only ones that walk on their hind legs are the animals that actually can. There are some moments where they straddle the line between moving like animals and humans but the art style makes it works really well and it stays consistent with the rest of the book.
If I do have a criticism, it’s that the story follows the pattern of Joeseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey a little too closely. This book is the first in what will be series and while reading it almost seemed like Petz was checking things off (the land of perfect day – [check], the call to adventure – [check], refusal of the call – [check], supernatural aid – [check], crossing of the first threshold – [check], the belly of the whale – [check]) and although some of them are more noticeable than others, they are there. This isn’t necessarily bad as almost all stories have their roots in some pre-existing story structure. But it does make certain things somewhat predictable. If not in it’s content than in being able to forsee the upcoming beats of the story. Also the monomyth has a tendency to make the characters inhabiting the story more archetypes than anything else. Again, not necessarily a bad thing but still a little predictable. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision on Petz’s part, as the monomyth has ingrained itself so thoroughly into modern storytelling that you don’t even realize your reading it. However once you’re aware it’s hard to ignore.
Honestly though, the predictability wasn’t really a problem for me and I still found it to be a very enjoyable read with a lot to like. Predictability in plot is only a problem if a story doesn’t have other things going for it, which War of the Woods definitely does and overall is a compelling book with a distinctive visual flair and charm that makes it very much worth your time.
TL; DR: Although it has a few problems with predictability of plot War of the Woods has enough going for it to make it a compelling read with a distinct sense of visual storytelling.
War of the Woods is written and illustrated by Matthew Petz with the book’s first “season” available digitally with plans for a physical book. Season Two will be released soon so make sure you check the book’s process blog.