Review: Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham

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Jonathan Edward Durham's Winterset Hollow was published by Credo House Publishers in September 2021.

Jonathan Edward Durham
Jonathan Edward Durham

Jonathan Edward Durham was born near Philadelphia in one of many satellite rust-belt communities where he read voraciously throughout his youth and beyond. After attending the College of William and Mary, where he recieved a degree in neuroscience while also studying literature, Jonathan waded into the professional world before deciding he was better suited for more artistic pursuits and turned the page on his career.

He now lives in California with his partner where he writes to bring a voice to the space between the timeless wonder of his favorite childhood stories and the pop sensibilities of his adolescent literary indulgences. Winterset Hollow, his debut novel, is available everywhere September 2021.

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Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham
Winterset Hollow
by Jonathan Edward Durham

Everyone has wanted their favorite book to be real, if only for a moment. Everyone has wished to meet their favorite characters, if only for a day. But be careful in that wish, for even a history laid in ink can be repaid in flesh and blood, and reality is far deadlier than fiction... especially on Addington Isle.

Winterset Hollow follows a group of friends to the place that inspired their favorite book — a timeless tale about a tribe of animals preparing for their yearly end-of-summer festival. But after a series of shocking discoveries, they find that much of what the world believes to be fiction is actually fact, and that the truth behind their beloved story is darker and more dangerous than they ever imagined. It’s Barley Day... and you’re invited to the hunt.

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I'm happy to start this review by saying that Jonathan Edward Durham's Winterset Hollow is one of the most compelling novels I've read in ages. It's simultaneously original, captivating and different, not to mention intriguingly chilling, dark and weird. I declare this novel the best debut novel of the year, because it differs from the norm and stands head and shoulders above other debut fantasy novels.

Winterset Hollow is not your normal kind of fantasy, but something special and unique, because it blends fantasy with dark fiction in an unforgettable way (it's possible to classify it as dark fantasy due to its dark contents). It has faint echoes of Alexander Zelenyj, Lev Grossman and the British folk horror film The Wicker Man, but it is also occasionally reminiscent of elements found in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Richard Adams' Watership Down, Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. It's a welcome breath of fresh air to the contemporary fantasy genre.

Winterset Hollow tells of Eamon, Caroline and Mark who are on a sort of a pilgrimage to pay homage to the author, E. B. Addington, who has given them so much. They're going to gaze upon the grounds of the estate on Addington Isle that inspired the author to write his famous book "Winterset Hollow", which tells about a tribe of animals preparing for their yearly end-of-summer festival called the Barley Day. After a series of incidents, they find out that what the world believes to be merely fiction is actually true and the truth is much darker and more dangerous than anybody could ever imagine...

The unfolding story is exceptionally compelling and has twists and turns that make it a captivating and rewarding reading experience. The events unfold at a steady pace and the story gathers momentum towards the surprising climax in which the protagonists find themselves faced with something totally unexpected and a desperate fight for survival begins. I find the story arc achingly effective, because there's a reason why things are the way they are on the island and cruel events are the source of anger and discontent. The elements of debt, vengeance, cruelty and loneliness will linger on your mind for a long time after you've finished reading the final page, because the moving and terrifying events won't be easily forgotten.

This novel has the fascination of the fantasy stories you've read as a child, but a dark streak runs throughout it and manifests itself as anger, rage and madness when the Barley Day celebration begins. It's kind of like a blend of the timeless aesthetics of The Wind in the Willows and the terrifying power of The Wicker Man coupled with the sparkling imagination of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the melancholy of The Last Unicorn. There's beauty, cruelty and tragedy at the heart of the story and the author uses them to create a stunning story.

The characterisation is excellent, because the protagonists are sufficiently complex and have emotional baggage. The secondary characters are less fleshed out, but that didn't bother me much, because the story focuses mostly on the protagonists and what happens to them.

I enjoyed reading about Eamon who is described as a solitary person. He has found comfort and solace by reading E. B. Addington's book and the book has affected him in a profound way. I was also captivated by how well the author writes about the animal characters and their characteristics and feelings. One of the animal characters, Phineas Fox, is an especially well created character, because at first he seems to be a normal character, but gradually begins to manifest signs of anger towards the author of "Winterset Hollow" and his deeds. Olivia the Owl is also an intriguing supporting character, because she has a part to play in the story.

The scene in which the protagonists meet Runnymead Rabbit, Phineas Fox and Flagwell Frog is one of the highlights of the story. They're amazed at finding out that the story they all know so well actually tells of real animals who can talk and act like humans do. There's a tantalising sense of wonder and amazement in this scene that I haven't experienced in a while in any other new fantasy novels.

I won't reveal what happens in the story, but I'll mention that the moment when the story turns from fantasy into horror is memorable, because it sets things in motion and nothing is the same anymore for the protagonists as they find themselves shocked at what is happening to them. I'll also mention that the ending of the story is spot-on perfect and fully satisfying. There's quite a lot of psychological depth in the story that lends credibility to the events and action scenes.

As you may have already guessed, I was very impressed by Winterset Hollow and its twisted story. There's something compellingly touching and elegant yet macabre and solemn about this novel that I find difficult to resist, because it appeals to my taste in dark fantasy and dark fiction. I look forward to reading what the author writes next, because he exhibits signs of being a gifted storyteller who has plenty of imagination and is not afraid to write something different.

If you want your fantasy with a touch of darkness and compelling weirdness, you should definitely read Jonathan Edward Durham's Winterset Hollow, because it's a unique novel. Novels like this one don't come along often, so make sure that you'll put it on your reading list as soon as possible.

Highly recommended!