Animal fantasy about power, religion and moles
Content warning: sexual assault, religious themes, rape apologism, violence
When I was growing up, animal fantasy was one of my favourite book genres. Some of my absolute favourites included “Watership Down” and “Black Beauty“. It is a broad genre, with plenty of books out there, but one that I have not explored very much as an adult. I picked this book up at a Lifeline Book Fair quite some time ago and it has been sitting on my shelf with a small collection of other animal fantasy novels that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The cover is extremely autumnal and very in season, and I thought it was high time I gave this genre another go.
“Duncton Wood” by William Horwood is an animal fantasy novel about two moles: Rebecca and Bracken. Born at a similar time in the declining system of burrows called Duncton Wood, Bracken and Rebecca’s upbringing couldn’t be more different. Bullied by his siblings but with a flair for exploration, Bracken leaves his unhappy burrow early and forges his own path. Rebecca on the other hand is the cherished daughter of Mandrake, an enormous mole from a far away system who has taken control of the Duncton moles. Mandrake suppresses the moles’ spiritual beliefs and encourages violence, and outright bans the ritual of visiting the revered Stone in midsummer. Between them, Rebecca and Bracken must rebel against Mandrake and help the Duncton Moles regain their faith.
This is an epic and sprawling story that follows the lives of Rebecca and Bracken as they mature and overcome physical and spiritual adversity. From the outset, Rebecca and Bracken are identified as star-crossed lovers, and Horwood spends a significant amount of the book navigating their complex yet inevitable relationship. I think Horwood’s real strength is nature writing, and his descriptions of the English countryside and changes of the seasons are very beautiful.
However, there were so very many problems with this book. While there is nothing wrong with this, a cursory glance at the cover would not indicate to a reader just how strong the religious overtones of this book are. An enormous proportion of this book is about moles finding and maintaining their faith in the Stone, and meeting other moles from other systems to talk about their own Stones. The overwhelming message in this book is that discarding spiritual traditions is bad, however it was never really made clear in the book what the social decline in Duncton was caused by. For example, the traditions were not replaced by technology, and Mandrake didn’t exactly fill the moral void.
Speaking of moral voids, I cannot in good conscience write about this book without mentioning the sexual assault. Essentially one mole rapes another mole in a horrific breach of trust and an enormous proportion of the book is spent trying to understand the perpetrator mole’s background and circumstances that lead to his violent and controlling behaviour. The perpetrator then commits unthinkable violence against children. However, despite this, the survivor spends a large amount of time empathising with the perpetrator and even later coming to think of the rape almost fondly. Reading these parts of the book honestly felt pretty gross and overshadowed the better elements.
Although I was really interested in reading about Horwood’s mole culture, ultimately it felt underdeveloped and contradictory. For example, some mole systems have books, but Horwood fails to explain how the books are made and how their language was written. This was such a missed opportunity in worldbuilding, and also raised questions of why there were no other technological developments. The emotional development of the characters was also quite superficial. Moles love and show reverence for each other almost immediately without any real reason. Horwood could have leaned into a more realistic explanation (moles like the smell or body language of other moles) or a more character-driven explanation, but mostly moles just made snap judgements about one another for no apparent reason.
I also thought it was a bit anglocentric that the Siabod (Welsh) moles had to speak English, but the English moles didn’t know or bother to learn Welsh and regularly described the language as harsh. The older moles constantly lamented that they did not have the words to explain what they meant, and the dialogue between the moles frequently didn’t say much at all. Harwood’s own language felt quite repetitive, and he mentioned the terms ‘peace’ and ‘love’ over and over and over.
A slow burn with strong religious themes and some very questionable narrative decisions, I would think twice before reading this.