James D'Arienzo, Jr., Woodbyrne: The Fallen Forest (Moo Press, 2003)

I'm a big fan of the current small press movement. The idea that, with the advance of technology, individuals and groups that were previously denied the ability to publish their writings inexpensively can now do so for not too much expenditure excites me. There have been quite a few excellent small presses that have surfaced in recent years, putting out quality work (see our review of Small Beer Press for one example).

The downside, however, is that a lot of writing that still needs to be worked on is getting published. Also unfortunate is that this unprofessional work seems at times to be drowning out the quality small press efforts.

But still, I try to approach small press works with a lot of largesse. If the cover looks a bit cheesy, I smile and affirm that you can't judge a book by its cover. If the type is a bit amateurish, well, there's always room for learning. But if the content of the book is lacking ... I become angry at having spent my hard-earned dollar (and usually more of it for a small press book than for a mainstream press book of like size) on something that should not have been published.

Unfortunately, the book before us today is one such work. Woodbyrne: The Fallen Forest by James D'Arienzo, Jr., should never have been published. From beginning to end, it is amateurish and juvenile, and would never have been published by a more traditional press.

The plot is fairly standard: the pseudo-medieval kingdom of Gower lies abreast the massive forest of Woodbyrne. The denizens of Gower have for years been afraid to venture into Woodbyrne: none who have entered have ever returned, for there is an evil lurking there. Enter into the picture Aaron, Prince of Gower, who is chafing against the demands placed on the heir to the throne. He wants to live a life of adventure, but the demands of royalty lead him to statecraft rather than swordcraft. Then, on the spur of the moment, he decides he will make a name for himself (as if a prince need do such a thing) by venturing into Woodbyrne. He does, and an adventure, replete with a damsel in distress, ensues. Not very original, but in the hands of a good wordsmith, even a hackneyed plot can reveal wonderful things.

James D'Arienzo, Jr., is not such a master. Rather, his writing is amateurish and infantile. One need not read beyond the first chapter to discover this. For example, almost immediately in the first chapter (I will disregard the unnecessary prologue) we are introduced to Prince Aaron Gower. Now, when I say 'introduced' I do not merely mean the character enters upon the page and we are gradually told about him. No, instead, after a clichéd shooting of an arrow, we are treated to a few paragraphs of purple prose about young Aaron, including 'Glumly, Aaron threw his weapon to the ground and huffed' and 'He wanted a life of excitement, danger' and 'He adored the beautiful trees and flowers that decorated the countryside'. In other words, we are not being shown Prince Aaron, but are discovering that the author is longing for a simpler land that the twenty-first century cannot provide. Fantasy is often accused of being escapist literature, and writing like this is ample ammunition for such accusations.

The wish-fulfillment writing gets worse. Soon Aaron's father the king enters the story. Excuse me, did I say 'father'? I meant 'dad'. That's right: in the kingdom of Gower, the prince refers to the lord of the kingdom as 'dad'. I don't think I've ever come across a fantasy that so totally misses the idea of royalty before. If you thought this was an aberration, later in the chapter, the queen is seen actually decorating the great hall for a celebration. No, not directing arrangements, but actually decorating!

I could go on about the unnecessary violence and gore, something that could have been edited out by an author with just the slightest sensibility of story telling; but I think the point has already been made: this is the author's escape fantasy rather than a quality book.

And this disappoints me. I really wanted to enjoy this book. I wanted to be able to reveal another small press success. Instead, I can find solace in the fact that others who read this review will be able to avoid a truly awful book.

[Matthew Winslow]