Review: Hexwood

Hexwood‘s protagonist is Ann Stavely, a teenage girl who, convalescing from a fever, watches out her window as a series of strangely dressed people enter – but don’t leave – the mysterious Hexwood Farm Estate, opposite her house. The next day, well enough to get up, she visits the tiny wood next to the farm. It’s the kind of wood recognisable to most people who grew up in a small town or village in England: a handful of trees with a dusty path running through them, exciting and safe all at once. But, this time, it goes on and on, uncannily, until Ann stumbles across a man named Mordion: a wizard who creates a child from his blood and from hers.

Ann returns to the wood several times over the next few days to visit Mordion and the child, Hume. But time in the wood is odd: one day Hume will be an infant of five, the next a teenager of fifteen. Magic works there, and there are castles, and monsters, and dragons, and other beasts of story.

We’re told that these effects are being produced by the Bannus, an enormously powerful machine that creates simulations to help with decision-making, which has been hidden away on Earth so no-one important can get their hands on it. But now it’s woken up; and as Ann visits Mordion and Hume on Earth, the important and despotic rulers of Earth and a good deal else besides are getting ready to visit Hexwood Farm and shut it down.

Hexwood feels a little like Diana Wynne Jones by numbers (which, to be clear, is still quite a lot more interesting than a lot of fantasy being written at the moment, even for adults): the plucky, pragmatic heroine; the knowing use of genre tropes; and, especially, the dizzying shifts of perspective as the things we thought we knew about the world of the novel change and move outwards. Like Power of Three, Hexwood starts off simple and becomes ever more complicated – a reflection, perhaps, of how the world becomes ever more complicated as we grow up.

That technique of “zooming out” has some particularly interesting things to say about how we use stories. The Bannus, it turns out, isn’t just a decision-making machine: it’s actually the machine that was once used to decide who the next rulers of the galaxy would be. Since being hidden away on Earth to keep the current Reigners in power, it’s schemed to bring everyone eligible to Earth, so it can test them: and this it does, specifically, through story. As the despotic Reigners enter Hexwood Farm – where the Bannus lives – one by one, they disappear into the Arthurian simulation it’s running; they forget their purpose. Meanwhile, the good characters – Mordion, Hume and Ann – though they become caught in the simulation, never forget that they’re not actually Arthurian knights; they never forget that they’re only playing roles.

In other words, Hexwood warns us against getting lost in the stories we tell. They’re useful places to play out scenarios and make decisions; but we have to avoid getting lost in them, and forgetting that we are more than the stories.

Which raises an interesting question: because Hexwood itself is, despite the ontological uncertainty it generates by switching from fantasy to science fiction and repeatedly questioning the reality it has established, at root an essentially traditional kind of story. The evil or weak characters all die or disappear, often in comic or ironic ways; the good characters become kings and queens; there’s even a love story (although it’s delightfully pragmatic: Ann, feeling “a queer pain in her stomach,” thinks, “Oh no! I’m in love with [spoiler]!”). It’s a comedy, in other words, an essentially conservative tale whose effective function is not to disturb the status quo but to restore it.

So, the question for the reader of Hexwood (and I’m not sure if it can be answered) is: is this a tale which we’re in control of, which we can use to make decisions and play out certain scenarios? Or, is it a tale we have become lost in, seduced by romantic tropes and consolatory happy endings, so that we forget the world is wider and more unsettling than any story?

Something to think about.

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