This post/review is going to be chock full of spoilers, and is really written for those people who have already read the first two collections. For that reason, I want to sum up my overall view and suggestion of The Unwritten now, so if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t like to know too much about a story, you can still get something out of this post:
If you didn’t like the first collection because you felt like it was more promise than substance, then read the second collection before you give up on it. And if you haven’t read either of them, then make sure you can read both of them back-to-back so you can get the most out of them.
There. You can keep reading if you want, but be aware that I’m going to get into specific details that might spoil the series for you.
One of my favorite things about the series so far is that it has something to say about literature as a whole. The story arc involving Tom’s imprisonment, and his escape, touches on how children’s stories can have such a profound effect on their audience. Tom may as well be Harry Potter, and the authors take that opportunity to look at the character and its fan frenzy that inspires a sort of worship in the readers. Even more telling is that the authors look at that theme from both sides, where it encourages the development of readers, and where it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. In fact, the story touches on how badly that line can blur and the consequences of such things, but it still suggests that the stories are important, and play a large part in a child’s development.
Furthermore, the last story in the collection looks at the treacly innocence of stories like those by Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne by placing a very non-innocent character smack in the middle of them. It almost reads like it’s trying to be a riff off of Fables, but the authors instead take the story in a direction where they talk about the sacrifices authors have to make in order to write those freely innocent stories. The vulgar character tries to confront the writer-character with this knowledge, and learns that the stories have to pretend like the dark, terrible realities of life are there, but the characters all have to pretend like they’re not there. By extension, the writers have to do that, and since writing can be an act of catharsis, a lot of those frustrations and anxieties are pushed aside in favor of those stories. Is it valuable? Is it damaging? Again, the authors look at both sides, and don’t really present a definitive conclusion. But it gets you thinking.
There’s something very organic in the way that the authors are developing the story. In the previous book, Tom went to the Villa Diodati, the last place his father was seen, and also the place where Mary Shelley came up with the idea to write Frankenstein. It wasn’t just a lark that he showed up there; he was trying to find answers about who he was. And it wasn’t a coincidence that his father was there, either, because the series is slowly establishing that the places where stories are told have a certain gravity that draw certain forces to it, and his father was looking for answers there, too. Events took a seriously demented turn at the house, and Tom and the story wound up going in another direction, but his showing up at that location wasn’t just random; it was a part of the story. In this collection, Tom runs into the embodiment of the character of the monster, but quickly dismisses him. The monster tells him, “We will speak again when you are ready to admit the truth about yourself,” and then the current story continues on. Even in this situation, the encounter isn’t random. He gets out of his jail cell and wanders around the prison, and that’s when he encounters the monster, but the cell being left open wasn’t an accident, or some latent piece of magic on his part. It was intentional, and part of the larger plot that began in the last collection. It’s a deft sort of storytelling, and one that doesn’t really become apparent until you start reading more of the series.
Of course, that sort of storytelling can suffer, if only because it requires some patience on the reader’s part. The first collection of The Unwritten was a little clunky and disjointed, mainly because there were a lot of strange things going on that were establishing the direction of the story. It’s absolutely necessary, and the writers at least made the premise interesting and promising enough to create the incentive for people to stay with it, but there’s always the risk of readers giving up because of its weirdness. And I guess this is the point where I should restate my point: If you gave up on the first collection because of its structure, try the second one to see if it changes your opinion of the series.
The premise is good, and the characters are interesting, and that alone would be enough for me to keep reading. Now I know that I’m in the hands of some skilled storytellers, and I’m even more interested in seeing what happens next. I just hope that the series doesn’t run out of steam and start forcing the diverse parts of the shorter story arcs to fit the premise. It’s been set up too well to let it suffer that way.