A Reader Reviews: Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s ‘Beyond the Deepwoods’

Chris Riddell Illustration
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

Although fourth in the internal chronology of the series, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s Beyond the Deepwoods was the first novel of The Edge Chronicles to be published. The thirteenth and final instalment of the series, The Descenders, came out earlier this year, an event that reminded me again of how much I loved the world of the Edge when I was a child. Of the many books I read when I was younger, Beyond the Deepwoods was one that completely captured my imagination. To indulge in some nostalgia, I have chosen to return to Beyond the Deepwoods and review a childhood favourite.

Within The Edge Chronicles, Beyond the Deepwoods constitutes the first part of a trilogy that focuses on the character of Twig. We first meet Twig living in the Deepwoods with a family of woodtrolls. After telling Twig the story of his naming, his mother Spelda sends him away to a cousin to keep him safe from sky pirates she fears will try to make him join their crew and reveals before he leaves that she is not his real mother. Soon afterwards, Twig sets out on the journey to his cousin and does the one thing all woodtrolls are warned against from childhood — he strays from the path. Naturally, Twig becomes lost in the Deepwoods and is unable to find his way back. He is forced to cut a path of his own through the heart of the forest and encounters on the way the many beings and creatures that inhabit it, from hover worms and slaughterers to banderbears and gabtrolls.

The narrative moves quickly from scene to scene and gives the impression of two world-builders excitedly exploring the world they have created. Stewart and Riddell have taken great care to ensure that their portrayal of the Deepwoods is governed by principles of nature not so dissimilar from those found in the real world, as we see in the careful delineation of the specific properties of different types of wood (the mournful singing of a lullabee log, for example) and the mutually beneficial relationship between the bloodoak and the tarry vine. Similarly well-developed are the social structures and practices that characterise each of the creatures in the Deepwoods, most notably those of the gyle goblins and the termagant trogs.

The weird and wonderful beings Twig meets in the Deepwoods are brought vividly to life by Riddell’s exquisite illustrations. By turns comedic and grotesque, and exhibiting the influence of steampunk, they give the work a distinctive aesthetic that only improves with each subsequent novel in the series. I have treasured these illustrations since my very first reading of the novel and am fortunate enough to own a few of Riddell’s original drawings, such as the one in the photograph above.

A classic tale about belonging and finding your place in the world, Beyond the Deepwoods is an enthralling introduction to the Edge. Its combination of text and image gives the tale a liveliness that makes Beyond the Deepwoods as instantly recognisable now as it was in 1998 when it first came onto the scene. Children and adults alike with a thirst for flights of fancy will find the Edge a wondrous place of peril and adventure.