I first discovered the Stonewylde books one Beltane a few years ago, and was immediately captivated by the magical story. It’s a strange kind of fantasy: set in a fictional secluded village in the English countryside, and rarely containing much palpable magic, preferring instead a subtlety which makes the magic, mainly based on ceremonies and meditation, hardly perceptible. A pagan believer might even argue that this isn’t fantasy at all. But I’m going to go with assuming it’s on-topic here; indeed, since the so-called Outside World is hardly involved in the story at all, much of it feels like it could be classic LotR-style fantasy, set in an entirely imaginary universe rather than an esoteric enclave of the real world.
The series consists of five books … wait, did I say five? I meant three. It’s a wonderful trilogy consisting of three books. OK, there are also two more books, set some thirteen years after the first three, but DO NOT read them. The first three books form a magical and beautiful story, like a delicate flower whose love and innocence shines through the darkest of times and uplifts the reader’s soul. The last two are a sickening blot, ugly and brutal in their betrayal of the franchise, like a crippling disease that consumes from within and slays slowly and without mercy; they leave a foul taste in the reader’s mouth. So most of this review will completely ignore the last two books and focus only on the first three. I will avoid spoilers as much as possible, although there will be a short section at the end which covers the last two books and necessarily contains spoilers from the first three.
What is the Stonewylde series? It’s a coming-of-age story; it’s a story about power and how it corrupts; it’s a story about the magic and traditions of the English countryside; but perhaps most of all, it’s a love story. Sylvie, the fragile girl from the Outside World, and Yul, the tough boy born and bred in Stonewylde, seem a highly unlikely match, especially since she’s Hallfolk and he a Villager: the upper and lower classes of Stonewylde are sharply separated, rarely mix together, and never intermarry. This ‘Romeo and Juliet’ style tale is at the heart of the series.
What, then, is Stonewylde itself? It’s a small community somewhere in the heart of Dorset, with a village, a stately home, and enough land to satisfy everyone’s wanderlust. But it’s also so much more than that: it’s an entire world. The society is completely self-sufficient and self-contained in every meaningful sense; although many Hallfolk do have connections in the Outside World, such things are rarely mentioned and almost never plot-relevant. This seclusion has enabled the people of Stonewylde to create a society of the sort I wish I could live in: no monetary system, no cars, no televisions, hardly a touch of modernity, and a pagan culture which regularly brings the community together in festivals and ceremonies based around appreciation of and respect for nature. The only blot on this perfect world is the existence of a class system: the privileged Hallfolk, distinguished by their silvery hair and good education, are segregated from the Villagers who do all the work necessary to support them.
It is into this world, then, that Sylvie arrives at the age of nearly fifteen. Sickened near death by the pollution and artificiality of the 21st century, she gains a new lease of life in Stonewylde, where her silver hair marks her as a member of the Hallfolk. She and her mother are taken under the wing of the charismatic Magus, the leader of the community, a man who exudes authority and whom everyone, Hallfolk and Villagers alike, seems to adore. He senses a mystery surrounding her and her unknown father (whom everyone assumes was a Hallfolk man), which he is keen to unravel.
Yul, meanwhile, lives at the opposite end of society. He’s of an age with Sylvie, but tough where she is delicate, strong where she is gentle, trodden on where she is pampered. As well as being constantly beaten and bullied by his brutal father, he’s even more used to hard work than most Village boys, since Magus often allots him particularly gruelling tasks as punishment for a perceived edge of insolence and insubordination in the boy. One of these tasks is to work the garden of the cottage where Sylvie and her mother live, and this is how the two first meet, although their friendship is soon forbidden by Magus.
So far it seems like a classic story of forbidden love. But the plot thickens when magic becomes involved. It turns out that Sylvie is ‘moongazy’: every full moon, she feels a strange urge to dance outdoors, and channels moon magic from the sky into the ground. Her moongaziness makes her both physically attractive and a possible source of power for those who seek it. Then there’s the earth magic, raw and dark where moon magic is light and silvery, which is meant to be channelled through the magus, the community leader, to the rest of the populace. But the current Magus has elected to keep the power for himself, using it to gain extra energy to work on building and supporting the community rather than sharing the power with the people directly. Which is probably why, at some point in the series, he stops being able to receive it at all. This has two indirect consequences: firstly, Yul starts being the conduit of earth magic instead, and gains in power as he approaches adulthood; secondly, Magus, desperate for a new source of power, begins to rely on stealing and leeching off Sylvie’s moon magic.
Magus is not only powerful and charismatic, but also intelligent and manipulative; he knows how to trick people into doing his bidding even when it goes against their better natures. Sylvie’s mother, and even she herself at times, are taken in by him and believe him to be a good man; it seems only Yul is fully immune to his wiles. The way Magus takes advantage of the innocent Sylvie over the course of the series is truly despicable, but at the same time he’s a very believable and even contradictory villain, one who makes it all too easy to see things from his point of view and trust his benevolence. Having known a man like him myself in my life, I found it easy to identify with those who plotted to bring him down while at the same time struggling to break free of their almost hypnotic belief in him.
And there we have it: cruelty, deception, and lust for power pitted against love, magic, and righteousness. It’s something like a fairy tale, but with enough uncertainty and ambiguity in the characters to be wholly believable. For those who don’t already know about such things, it also offers a great education in the ancient traditions of English folklore and paganism.
Spoilers follow. I recommend you read no further until you’ve finished book 3.
The above covers the first three books in the series. I’ll talk more briefly about the last two, since I strongly dislike them. To do that, of course, it’ll be necessary to include spoilers about the first three.
At the end of the 3rd book, Magus dies while trying to kill Yul, who had turned out to be his biological son. With both popular support and the right of inheritance, Yul smoothly took over the leadership of Stonewylde. Thirteen years later, at the time of the 4th book, much has changed: most of the Hallfolk have been thrown out, and the community is now run by a council consisting of various strong characters chosen from within it. Yul and Sylvie are happily married with two young daughters, and the whole community (with the possible exception of one semi-outcast family, Villagers but staunch supporters of the old Magus) seems to be pulling together.
The central character this time is Yul’s younger sister Leveret, now a teenager, who has been bullied by two of her brothers since childhood but has never been able to make anyone recognise or admit this fact. Her mistreatment sets the scene for a thoroughly miserable pair of books, in which most of what Yul and co. have achieved since Magus’s time is slowly torn down. Yul himself has become almost the spitting image of his biological father, the old Magus: bullying, controlling, and obsessed by power. His relationship with Sylvie begins to break down as she is haunted by the ghost of Magus, and some of the old Hallfolk returning unexpectedly spell an even worse turn of affairs (in every sense of the word) for both of them.
The first three books were a story of love and hope triumphing over the currently reigning lust and cruelty. In the last two, the tables are turned as evil begins to triumph once more, partly through the actions of a few rogue elements (the outcast family mentioned earlier, and the returning Hallfolk) and partly through the corruption of the currently reigning once-good people – the very same people we identified with and loved so much in the first trilogy. Do not read these last two books: they will not only tarnish your view of the characters, but leave you cynical and unable to believe in happy endings or good triumphing over evil. You’ll want to strangle the people you used to cheer for, and be left with a dreadful feeling that everything and everyone will go wrong in the end. A thoroughly depressing and infuriating read.