Wildlord is a thrilling, spellbinding story about a boy seeking a place for himself in the world. Equally suspenseful, history-rich and beautifully written, I was hooked from the outset when sixteen-year-old Tom receives an invite to join an uncle on a peculiar farm. Once there, I was lured into a strange, nail-biting world so gradually that I deemed the pops of magic almost normal. I was soon so deeply submerged in time-travel, the struggle for power, and the world of the mysterious Samdyha, that Tom’s previous ‘normal’ life seemed distant and unfathomable, like it was the greatest fantasy world of all.
When news broke that a new Philip Womack book was going to be published by independent Irish publishing house, Little Island Books, I sat up. It is not unusual to associate Irish presses with books written by Irish authors or, at least, books with an Irish interest, but this was different. Philip is an English journalist and writer – a brilliant one – and his new teen fantasy saga, Wildlord, is firmly set in his countryside of Suffolk. An unusual pairing.
When the opportunity to chat with Philip arose, the first question I was itching to ask was How? How did their two worlds collide? “I targeted small independent publishers who were producing beautiful books,” Philip tells me. Having found Matthew Parkinson-Bennett of Little Island Books on Twitter, he was reminded of one of their books he reviewed – The Wordsmith by Patricia Forde. It impressed him, they impressed him, as did Matthew, and instinct told him this Irish publisher was the best home for his book. I could fully appreciate that – I am a big fan of small independent presses and the delicious work they publish, but I was sure I saw a twinkle in his eye as he spoke. He knew, as did I, there was more to it than simply the meeting of an English author and an Irish publisher. I blame the fairies.
Let me explain: it’s a given that Philip’s dazzling biography reads like a work of fiction. He is the critically acclaimed author of several children’s books, a much-admired literary critic, and has several fellowships under his belt with several published short stories and screen plays to boot – the list goes on. But first and foremost, Philip is a master at seeking wonder. Born in a thunderstorm, and witness to a real-life big-as-a-BFG giant as a child, Philip sees through the mundane, and finds magic and wild stories in everyday things. A man after my own heart.
“There is Irish folklore behind it all,” explains Philip, “and though Wildlord is not set in Ireland, there is a strong connection in its fantasy world.” He tells of modest country houses – just like the one which features in Wildlord – being a common sight close to home, each propped up on a mound and surrounded by a moat. “Why is that mound there? Why is that moat there?” Philip would question, instantly dismissing the real, too-boring reason for their existence. Having studied Classics and English in Oxford, Philip’s mind is programmed to look for the folklore and myth, and a simple moat about a mound brought to mind wild sagas of the people of the Sidhe – the fairies or ‘good folk’ wedged deep in Irish lore who lived in mounds.
His imagination had begun to roll, “There was something in that house that the people of the Sidhe wanted. They were unable to get it because they couldn’t cross the moat. That was the seed of Wildlord. But the people are slightly different in my world,” he says of the enthralling supernatural beings he named the Samdyha who feature in his book, “The Samdyha are a version of the people of the Sidhe whose job it is to look at the balance of, and power in, the world. The Samdyha hold everything together.”
I am immediately reminded of a beautiful one-liner (one of countless more) in his book likening the ‘holding together’ to a leaf skeleton and the tracings within it. Nods to nature feature generously in this book, and they are there to serve a purpose: Wildlord drips with nail-biting suspense, and when it approaches, Philip raises the stakes with a fully immersive experience – we can hear the flutter of the pigeon’s wings, and the buzzard mewing between panicked breaths, the smell of the woods, the feel of the moss. “There is a part of me that is rooted in countryside. I have tried to really set my books into the world where they are placed. Setting is so important in character and plot – it’s so tightly woven in,” says Philip, and his thoughts are as ‘true as the curve of a raven’s beak’, I respond, having stolen his own Wildlord words.
Likewise, Philip has a clever trick up his sleeve when it comes to dispensing a dose of magic or fantasy. To lure you in gradually, he buffers it with the mundane – something bizarre happens to Tom, so Philip gives his protagonist a cup of tea and some toast. This spotlighting of normality keeps our feet on the ground, keeps us tied to Tom – a harness of sorts.
To top off Philip’s stunning prose and wild storytelling, there are several icebergs in this story where I got a sense of there being so much more to explore. I asked Philip what we can expect beyond Wildlord I. “I’ve got plenty of thoughts,” he says and follows with a hearty laugh, “Tom, Kit and Zita – they’re so alive in my mind. They have histories and futures…” and he expands, so passionately, on this and I promise to keep my lips sealed. Suffice it to say, Wildlord can get far, far wilder, if the fairies of the Sidhe desire it. Obviously, it was they who played a hand in Philip finding the perfect Irish home for this thrilling novel – I hear Little Island Books swiftly made an offer within days of receiving Philip’s manuscript. Read it, and you’ll find out why.
© Eve McDonnell
Find Philip on Twitter: @WomackPhilip.
A gripping teen fantasy about young love, dark mystery and magic.
One summer morning 16-year-old orphan Tom Swinton receives a mysterious message from his uncle, James, calling him to visit his Suffolk farm. Tom quickly realises there is something menacing, perhaps supernatural, at Mundham farm: but does it come from outside, or from within? Then he discovers old diaries written by a local rector’s daughter, which describe her meetings with Rohenga, a member of a supernatural race known as the Samdhya.
When Tom meets one of the Samdhya, he begins to uncover the secrets of the estate. The pressure mounts, and Tom finds his loyalties under threat. On the one hand he is offered infinite power; on the other, freedom. Which will he choose?
Compelling and thoughtful, Wildlord, with its strong sense of place and atmosphere, will appeal to fans of teen fantasy and magic.
Order your copy online here.