THE WOOD BEE QUEEN by Edward Cox (BUDDY READ BOOK REVIEW)
They say that in the Realm, the sea is in the sky…
That’s right! Nils and I have returned with another Buddy Read, seeing as how we enjoyed our buddy read of For The Wolf so much!
This time, we’ve read (and nattered about) the brand new novel from Edward Cox – The Wood Bee Queen. The novel is out tomorrow from Gollancz, and to celebrate there’s a blog tour so be sure to check it out!
Somewhere in England, in a small town called Strange Ground by the Skea, Ebbie Wren is the last librarian and he’s about to lose his job. Estranged from his parents, unable to make connections with anyone except the old homeless lady who lives near the library, Ebbie isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do next. His only escape from reality is his deep interest in local folklore, but reality is far stranger than Ebbie can dream.
On the other side of the sky and the sea, the Queen of House Wood Bee has been murdered. Her sister has made the first move in a long game, one which will lead her to greatness, yet risk destruction for the entire Realm. She needs the two magical stones Foresight and Hindsight for her power to be complete, but no one knows where they are. Although the sword recently stolen by Bek Rana, small time thief and not very good at it, might hold a clue to their location . . . and to stopping the chaos. But all Bek wants is to sell the sword and buy herself a better life. She’s not interested in being a hero, and neither is Ebbie.
But someone is forcing their hand and playing for the heart of the Realm. Ebbie and Bek are destined to unite. They must find a way to stop the destruction of House Wood Bee, save the Realm, and just maybe save themselves in the process. All victories come at a price. The Oldungods are rising. And they are watching…
This story is dedicated to Elsie, and if you’d like to learn who Elsie is, and her beautiful influence upon this story, you can check out Ed’s blog post HERE.
And so on to our review:
Firstly, what drew you to this book, and what were your expectations?
Nils: I’ve read a couple of novels by Edward Cox before and I’ve really enjoyed his style. I’ve found he tends to blend genres, he creates well rounded characters, particularly female ones, and he has a good balance of creating dark stories yet not ones without hope. Also he’s a big fan of writing about monsters, and I’m a big fan of monsters, so I couldn’t not want to read a new novel by Cox!
Beth: I’ve never read anything of his before, but I do have a copy of Song of the Sycamore which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long – I bought it at an event with Edward Cox in Swansea Waterstones, and his panel was so interesting.
Nils: I’ve watched a few of his virtual events recently and he’s fascinating, and funny too!
When I heard The Wood Bee Queen would be a slightly different story to the author’s previous work, one with a lighter and more whimsical tone, a story about a murdered queen, a lost princess and a librarian on a quest to stop an evil villain from taking over a kingdom, I was very curious. I didn’t really have many expectations other than I wanted a magical, immersive tale with monsters and characters I could care for, and that’s exactly what Cox delivered.
Beth: I had heard Sycamore was quite dark, which was why maybe I’ve been putting it off, so I jumped at the chance to read The Wood Bee Queen. I was really looking forward to the myth and fairy tale aspects I’d heard about.
Having started the book, what were your initial impressions?
Nils: Does it sound cheesy if I say I loved it right from the beginning?! Ah well, even if it does, that’s just the truth!
Beth: Same here Nils! I really felt swept straight into it.
Nils: From the first couple of chapters we’re presented with two realms – Strange Ground by the Skea, which is earth’s realm, and Strange Ground Beneath the Skea, which is the magical realm. On Earth, we meet Mai, an elderly homeless woman, and Ebbie our librarian. We see that they both have such a strong bond together and when Mai’s pronounced dead, it leads Ebbie on the biggest adventure he’s ever had. In the realm Beneath the Skea we meet Yandira, an imprisoned Princess who plots her freedom and her eyes are firmly set on taking the throne.
Beth: I loved how the opening couple of chapters gave us these introductions to the main players of this story. A taste for them and what their lives were, before the upheaval begins. It was like seeing them on neutral ground? I remember my first impression of Yandira was actually to feel a little sorry for her. And I was super excited that Bek Rana was a thief, there’s something so fun about thieves in fantasy books.
Nils: You know there’s going to be quite a bit of mayhem when a thief in a fantasy book is involved! And you’re absolutely right, Beth, I hadn’t thought of it like that but Cox does set them all up on neutral ground.
If this wasn’t enough to hook me in, Cox’s atmospheric prose certainly did the trick too.
“The sky was clear and bright with stars, yet the silvery glow of the moon rippled like a reflection in a pond. Beneath the taste of brine, a light breeze carried the scent of something wild, filled with desire and pursuit. A thin mist had begun forming on the ground like smoke sighed from the mouths of sleeping dragons.”
I could picture the scenes vividly, and this worked to immerse me into the story. I wanted to discover more about both realms, more about the characters – what was their backstory, what had happened to them?
Beth: The prose was so beautiful! This book was very easy to read; although beautiful, the prose is by no means overpowering, and is coupled with plenty of down-to-earth moments from the characters. “About as decisive as a cow’s moo” is definitely something that will stick with me for a while!
Nils: Haha! Loved that line!
As I carried on reading, I began to feel a strong fairytale-esque ambience which was definitely an aspect I loved, as it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which is also a book I’ve loved.
Beth: Yes! Now I haven’t read Stardust, but I have read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it put me very much in mind of that kind of tone. There’s a very natural feel to the magic and other worldliness, as if there really could be another realm just a ripple away.
Nils: Shhh, Beth, I’m still hoping there is!
Beth: There are certainly some parts of the country that feel there is, and I think Cox tapped into that feeling so well.
Tell us about the plot; did you enjoy the storyline?
Nils: Throughout the book we follow many different protagonists, each on their own journey. Ebbie has to find a lost princess, Bek Rana – a thief, is working towards earning enough money to escape from Strange Ground. Yandira slowly spreads her malevolence throughout Castle Wood Bee, and Genevieve Kingfisher gathers the protectors of the realm to build a force to stop Yandira. I found each of these characters have engaging plots, which Cox cleverly brings together as the story progresses.
There’s also a bigger plot of rivalling gods controlling or manipulating each of the characters’ lives, and I know you absolutely loved that aspect, didn’t you Beth? I thought it was a brilliant concept which added another layer to this richly intricate plot.
Beth: I thought it was so clever! There was a distinctly Greek Epic feel to the structure of the plot, in terms of characters’ apparently innocuous decisions and actions have meaning and repercussions later in the story, and believing they have free will when in fact for the majority of the story they were very much pawns and their actions were predetermined. However, there’s also this sense of a fairy tale, of stepping through a magic portal and being whisked to a Realm where the folk live and some of them can do magic. Cox blends the two story types seamlessly; the plot ticks along and the story just seems effortless. It’s very much like the swimming of a swan. It’s a perfectly easy story to read, and yet when you look under the surface, you start picking out threads and themes and there’s so much going on!
Nils: Absolutely agree!
Beth: I can’t talk about my favourite aspect of the plot too much, as it would give far too much away, but Ebbie’s confrontation left me reeling!
Any stand-out characters for you?
Nils: Something which impressed me was the way Cox’s characters all felt so realistic, even those who were in the realm Beneath the Skea. I was first drawn to Ebbie because of his anxious and introverted nature. Shut away in his library, fearful of crowds, in a way sheltered from the harshness of the world, there was a lot I found relatable to his character.
“Was this a hidden gem? A blessed ray of distraction on a day when he needed to forget the world and all it was throwing at him? Settling back in the armchair, Ebbie laid the book on his lap and dived from his life into the mysterious pool of a far-off land.”
For example I love this quote so much, as it reflects the joy I also find in reading fantasy books.
Beth: Oh Nils I loved Ebbie much for the same reason! I didn’t think of Ebbie, and Bek, and Mai, and everyone as characters but rather people.
Nils: Yes, and this isn’t always easy to achieve, but Cox nailed it.
Beth: He really did! Someone recently described Diana Wynne Jones’ novels (I’ve spent a good fifteen minutes trying to find where I saw it, and I can’t) as having a “quiet humanity” to them, and it really struck me whilst reading Wood Bee as Cox has managed to harness that same quality.
“Alice carried a carefree attitude and nothing seemed to faze her. She was comfortable in herself and with others around her, whether she knew them or not. A fae creature, to Ebbie’s mind…”
Nils: Little descriptions like that just speak volumes.
I also really liked Bek, I felt she had the right balance of feistiness but also loneliness too. She’s a character who has faced a lot in life, and so understandably it hardened her heart, but throughout the course of the novel we witness it soften.
Beth: We had so much fun working out what her secrets might be, didn’t we Nils!
Nils: We did! It was a lot of fun trying to puzzle out many of the secrets!
Beth: Cox captured that balance of street-tough feistiness masking vulnerability and abandonment perfectly. That’s quite a recognisable trait, and yet there was nothing about her portrayal that felt cliche. I particularly loved how honest she was in her dishonesty – and this is maybe where Cox gets quite meta. Ebbie describes fiction exactly the same way:
“These types of tales are more honest in their dishonesty, revealing the truths that fact likes to dilute.”
And Bek is the same. She doesn’t pretend to be something she isn’t, she’s disloyal and dishonest – and it’s within her own dishonesty to Ebbie that we can see the honesty of her character.
Nils: Excellent point, Beth.
In terms of other characters I also do love a good villain and so Yandira was a standout character for me. I feel perhaps she was more a victim of circumstance, lured by a promise of power and importance by the Goddess Persephone, a goddess who just revelled in causing chaos, and therefore although I loathed her, I could understand her too. She’s a character who becomes less and less human as the story unfolds, and Cox always had me anticipating what she’d do next.
Beth: Her descent was interesting to follow, wasn’t it! And I thought it particularly clever how Persephone treated her, the way her powers waned with the patience of her Oldunone (goddess). There was a great line,
“Because prayers, like games, only met with success if they weren’t boring.”
I think that really summed up the nature of Cox’s deities. A very similar stance to Terry Pratchett, that they’re all arseholes who can’t be trusted.
Nils: I loved that aspect, just because they’re gods and goddesses doesn’t make them innately good.
Beth: Or equally, innately bad.
What do you feel were the strengths of this book?
Nils: As I’ve mentioned I believe Cox has delivered a great balance of darkness and wholesomeness. There is such a poignant exploration of loss and loneliness, but also an exploration in making amends, of the importance of forgiveness and bonds that can’t be broken. I loved the way Cox’s characters all learnt from each other.
“Ebbie Wren was a mirror, and in it Bek could see reflected the person she used to be.“
Beth: I love that quote so much, I have it down in my notes. We learn early on that Ebbie does fear things, but that’s the nature of fear, isn’t it? It’s subjective. Ebbie doesn’t see himself as brave, but he confronts and handles his fears in a way that Bek cannot, and there’s a form of bravery in that.
Nils: That’s so true, and Bek may have learnt to begin caring for others again through Ebbie’s openly caring nature, but he too learns from her, he learns that even someone like him can be strong, and can survive against all odds.
I also believe Cox did a wonderful job of exploring themes such as ‘history being written by the victors’ and how history can easily be manipulated.
Beth: Yes! How easy it is to manipulate stories and truths!
There was so much I really loved about this book, and although on the face of it, it’s a whimsical story; there were so many thought-provoking moments. I think the characters were absolutely the strength of this book though; it’s been quite some time since I read a book where I felt something for all the characters involved.
I also really enjoyed the subtlety of the world building. It was there, and I had no trouble picturing these worlds, but I respected the fact Cox leaves you space for your own imagination also. Again, it was very much like a fairy-tale in that regard.
Was there anything you wish had been done differently? Was there anything that didn’t work?
Nils: I would have liked a few more scenes with Mai, sorry Ed I’m greedy, even if they were just a few more flashback scenes. Mai felt like a wonderfully inspirational character and I could have happily read more of her passages.
“Well then, it seems you were a hero all along. Not bad for a librarian.”
Other than that, I can’t think of anything I would have changed.
Beth: I honestly can’t think of anything I’d change. I don’t think there was anything that didn’t work. It felt like everything in this story had its place and purpose! There was never an instant I felt the story dragged, there wasn’t a character I felt that was superfluous. Perhaps a flashback scene with Mai and her daughters as they were, reading Morrad as how she was before, but like Nils, I’m just being greedy!
Finally, did it meet your expectations?
Nils: The Wood Bee Queen pretty much met or surpassed my expectations. I did not expect to feel this emotionally connected to these characters, yet by the end I did not want to say goodbye to them. I never expected this to be such an enchanting fairytale-esque read, but this entire book felt like a classic made fresh.
Beth: Oh this book completely surpassed my expectations. Which were already reasonable. But I wasn’t expecting the poignancy, the exploration of faith (I am absolutely on the same page as Ebbie), and like Nils, just how much I was going to love these characters! You put it perfectly Nils. There were plenty of aspects to this book that felt familiar and therefore comfortable. But Cox’s writing lifts the story out of the ordinary and delivers you something new and truly special. A true storyteller!
‘I’m no link that begins a chain of events that decides the fate of worlds. I have a role in this game because a good friend asked for my help and I said yes.’