Book Review of Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy

Colin Meloy’s Wildwood Imperium is the third book of The Wildwood Chronicles, and it just came out this February, so it’s a very new release. Liam was eager for me to review it so that he could get his hands on it after the way the second book left him hanging. I reviewed the first book (Wildwood) here and the second book (Under Wildwood) here.

Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy - Book Review by What My Kids Read

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In Wildwood Imperium, the Unadoptables form an alliance with a group of saboteurs, rescuing their friends and destroying the Industrial Titans. Alexandra, the Dowager Governess, also known as the Verdant Empress, is returning in a scary ivy-form! All Prue knows is that she has to bring Prince Alexei back to life to save Wildwood and the Outside, a complicated and dangerous mission. In another part of Wildwood, Curtis is reunited with his sisters, and all the plot lines converge to save Wildwood and the Outside from the Verdant Empress.

Here is an interview with the author and illustrator about Wildwood Imperium:

The theme of Wildwood Imperium is forgiveness. The author says in the interview above that the message of the books is to get out and explore the wilderness around you, and I can see that, but overall, the series shows how love, friendship, and forgiveness overcome evil.

Parents might want to know that there is a magic/supernatural theme throughout the book. Animals can talk, and act like humans in Wildwood. Prue can communicate with plants, and there are two cult groups that are very influential in Wildwood. A girl uses magic to help the Dowager Governess come back from the dead as an ivy creature, the Verdant Empress. There are bombs, sabotage, and a shocking moment when a former villain is shot in the back. There is a guillotine in Wildwood, and a few references to beheadings. One expletive is used several times in the book.

My Mom-Meter gives Wildwood Imperium an overall safety rating of 3 (Caution) for ages 9 and up.

The Lexile rating for Wildwood Imperium is not listed at present.

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

Click here to skip straight to Potential Discussion Points

Click here for Liam’s Review

Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy - Book Review by What My Kids Read

Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/DrugsModerately Safe

BullyingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Disrespectful AttitudesSafe - no actual four-letter words

Gambling: Safe - no actual four-letter words

Gross BehaviorSafe - no actual four-letter words

LanguageCaution

Magic/SupernaturalExtreme Caution

MoralityModerately Safe

Romance/SexSafe - no actual four-letter words

Scary ThemesCaution

ViolenceExtreme Caution

Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy - Book Review by What My Kids Read

Plot summary of Wildwood Imperium: ***Contains Spoilers***

Zita, a 15-year-old girl, is named the May Queen in the South Woods. After the celebrations, she sneaks out with some friends to call on the Verdant Empress in a seance-type session. The Empress answers by words appearing n a fogged-up mirror. Zita’s friends had vanished at the first sign of something spooky, and only Zita is left with the mirror. Every night at midnight, new words appear, giving instructions of what Zita must do. Zita feels sorry for the Empress, remembering the legends that the Empress had lost her son in a horse-riding accident. (The Empress had a mechanical boy made by the two best toy makers in the world, and used his teeth and used magic and a special cog to bring back his soul. The Prince was horrified at what he was, and took the cog out and smashed it, essentially killing himself again.)  Since her mother recently died, and Zita misses her terribly, Zita hopes that the Empress will take care of her like a daughter once she helps her. Later in the story, it is revealed that the Verdant Empress is Alexandra, the Dowager Governess, an evil woman who nearly sacrificed Prue’s baby brother, Mac, for power (that was in the first book).

Meanwhile, Prue and Esben (the bear who lost his hands after creating the part that brought Prince Alexei to life) start at Prue’s parents’ house. After they heal from their injuries, they head back to Wildwood to bring Prince Alexei back to life. The Council Tree had told her that it was the only way to save Wildwood. Prue plans to find the other toy maker (who lost his eyes after creating the part for Prince Alexei) and then bring Prince Alexei back to life. When she arrives back in the South Wood, anarchy has taken over. There are beheadings by guillotine for those not “patriotic” enough, and a religious sect call the Synod has taken over martial law. The Synod’s members all dress in long robes and wear reflective masks and are disciples of The Blighted Tree. When Prue announces her intentions to bring back Prince Alexei, the people riot. She receives a secret note telling her to meet at The Blighted Tree that night, but when she gets there, the Synod try to force her to eat a parasitic moss that grows on the tree and turns everyone that eats it into a mindless drone. Prue manages to refuse, but she is arrested and sent to a rock island, the Crag, to die slowly. On her way to the island, she notices that she hears ticking from her guard from the Synod, and realizes that the parasitic plant is living inside him. Prue uses her abilities to command the plant to come out, and it comes out of his mouth and nose rather forcefully. The man is brought to his senses, and Prue recognizes him as one of the bandits from Curtis’ group (she learns that he was drugged with the parasite and sent back to the bandit camp to feed the parasite to the others). They stage a short, ill-advised attack on the ship’s crew, and both are dropped off at the Crag and left to die. The Prince of the Owls hears what has happened, and rescues Prue and the bandit from the Crag and brings them back to the South Wood, where the Verdant Empress has awakened and is rapidly covering all of Wildwood in invasive ivy that covers over people, lulling them to sleep.

While all of that has been happening, Curtis’ sisters have been living with the Unadoptables, trying to figure out a way to rescue Carol (the blind man who had taken care of all the children – we later learn that he is the other toy maker that brought Alexei to life) and Martha from Titan Tower. They meet up with a group of saboteurs, known as The Chapeaux Noirs, who are determined to destroy Titan Tower and bring down the Industrial Titans. They form a plan to attack the tower and rescue their friends. The small children climb through the ductwork while the Chapeaux Noirs throw explosives and create a diversion. They use Mr. Unthank, the evil man who once imprisoned the children who is now a half-crazed feeble man, to get into the building and shut down security. Mr. Unthank does it help the children and to earn their forgiveness, and he ends up being shot by one of his former partners, and, after the children are safe, Mr. Unthank sets off a bomb that destroys Titan Tower, killing him and everyone in the building (including the most ruthless Titan of them all, Mr. Wigman). A man, Roger Swindon (who appears to be pulling the strings in the Synod), had managed to kidnap Carol right before the children arrived to rescue Carol and Martha, and the Unadoptables take off in hot pursuit to save the blind man, Carol. Everyone, Swindon, Carol, and the 6 Unadoptables are caught in a bandit trap, and end up swinging in rope netting high in the trees. Curtis recognizes his sisters among the Unadoptables, and they quickly catch him up to speed, and Roger Swindon is taken captive. Curtis and Septimus, the rat that is his best friend, have been living in the woods by themselves ever since they left Prue at the end of the last book. The bandits had disappeared without a trace (due to the parasite, although Curtis doesn’t know that until later), leaving Curtis to carry on the bandit tradition alone.

Back in the South Wood, Prue uses her powers to hold back the ivy while her few companions rescue people. They find the Synod, and Prue calls the parasite out of their bodies, and they all come to their senses. The Synod had imprisoned Esben (the toy maker bear), so Prue and her companions set him free and set him on the daunting task of recreating the cog to put into the mechanical Prince Alexei to bring him back to life. Prue flies with the birds and bandits to stop the Verdant Empress, who is taking down the three ancient, magical trees that have protected Wildwood from the Outside. Once all three trees are destroyed, the Empress can take over the Outside as well. Prue and her companion rush to the last tree, The Council Tree, and rescue Curtis, his sisters, Carol the toy maker, and the Unadoptables who were nearing swallowed up in the ivy. The Empress has taken the form of a woman, all made of ivy, and she commands the ivy into large giants and bird-like creatures to attack Prue’s ragtag army.

Once Prue realizes who Carol is, she sends him back to Esben to create the Mobius Cog. Carol and Esben finally succeed in recreating the cog, but the Prince’s body is missing his teeth. They find a repentant Zita, who is ashamed that she brought back the Empress because she missed her mom. She gives them the teeth (one of the things the Empress had needed to return), and Prince Alexei is brought back to life. He is not happy to be alive again, but understands that he must stop his mother from destroying Wildwood. Prince Alexei asks Zita to take out his cog when he has finished his task, and she agrees.

The battle to protect The Council Tree fails, Curtis is swallowed in ivy, and Portland is covered in ivy as the Periphery spell is broken with the death of all three trees. All seems lost when Prince Alexei shows up on the battlefield. He tells his mother that he forgives her for trying to bring him back when he was already dead. This is all the Empress wanted, and she dissipates and her army of ivy returns to just being lots of ivy. Prue grabs the ivy and begins pulling it into a pile under her (fulfilling a message she had received from The Council Tree before it died), once all the ivy has been pulled from all over Portland and Wildwood, Prue collapses. She appears to still be alive but unconscious. The Mystics of the North Wood (disciples of The Council Tree) take Prue to a small tree (the new One Tree). She is laid on the earth at the foot of tree, and disappears into the ground (just like the Elder of the Mystics – a young boy – had done at the beginning of the book). Wildwood is restored and the Periphery Bind is set again with the One Tree. The Unadoptables join the bandits and become legendary heroes. Prince Alexei realizes that Wildwood needs him, so he decides to stay alive, and it is hinted that Zita becomes his wife. Curtis and his sisters go home to their parents (who have just come back from looking for Curtis in Russia). The children tell their parents everything, and their parents believed them. Curtis was allowed to continue his duties with the bandits, and his parents could come and visit, since they were half-Wildwood in their ancestry. Rodney Swindon disappears, and might still be at large to do evil in another book (not sure if another book is in the works, but it was a loose end).

The book ends with Prue’s family missing her. A strange sapling springs up overnight in their yard and grows quickly. Prue’s family takes care of it, and one day, instead of a tree, Prue is standing in the backyard. She is reunited with her family and tells them all the story.

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in Wildwood Imperium:

  • When Prue and Esben leave for Wildwood, Prue’s mother will not say goodbye. She just sits there, knitting, mad that Prue is leaving again. It is never addressed in the book after that. Why do you think Prue’s mom acted that way? How do you think she should have acted?
  • “If it hadn’t been for Esben, Prue would undoubtedly be dead right now (sitting nestled into the plush velvet seat of the bouncing rickshaw, her mind briefly touched the void: If she’d been killed, where would she be? She shook the thought away.)” You might want to talk about what your family believes about death and what happens after death.
  • Nine-year-old Elsie had “been so accustomed, in her former life, before her parents’ abandonment, to sitting back and letting the adults handle the big decisions. But things had changed… She now saw adults as incredibly fallible people, just like children. Their adulthood did not necessarily save them from constantly making bad decisions – in fact, she speculated, they were more likely to make bad decisions.” You might want to talk with your children about what it means to grow up or to be mature. Do you agree with Elsie that some adults don’t seem to really grow up?
  • A squirrel asks an owl “Don’t you think there’s, you know, more to life? I means, more than just sitting here on this limb waiting for some food to come walking along?” The squirrel the shows the owl a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and the owl is inspired to recreate it out of twigs. He spends all of his time on this masterpiece, and just as it is finished, Elsie and her group run through the woods and unwittingly destroy it. Why do you think this story was included in the book?
  • When Prince Alexei forgives his mother, she dissolves. You might want to talk with your child about the power of forgiveness in turning away wrath and healing hurts.

Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy - Book Review by What My Kids Read

Alcohol/Drugs: 

  • Poppy beer and blackberry wine are mentioned multiple times.
  • Zita’s father is described as “tipsy” after a celebration.
  • It is mentioned that older girls at Zita’s school “smoked illicit cigarettes in the schoolyard.”
  • Rachel sarcastically says they can celebrate her birthday with “rat pee champagne.”
  • Some soldiers smoke cigarettes.
  • The Caliphs of the Synod eat “Spongiform,” a parasitic moss that grows on the blighted tree. It then attaches to their brain and makes them mindlessly follow the leaders.
  • Prue smells “stale beer” on board a ship.
  • Rachel has a “sip of cordial” at a dance.

Bullying: 

Disrespectful Attitudes: 

Gambling: 

  • Poker is mentioned in passing.

Gross Behavior:

  • Rachel sarcastically says they can celebrate her birthday with “rat pee champagne.”
  • When a few of the Unadoptables see a clean bathroom for the first time in a very long time, Harry wants to use the facilities, just because it looks so nice. They don’t have time, but he pleads to just “go number one.” The children are nearly caught, and there is an awkward scene where Harry is actually at the top of the stall while a Stevedore (a Titan guard) tells a buddy outside that “nature calls” and then uses the toilet below Harry.
  • When Prue calls the parasite to come out of Seamus, it grows out of his nose. “There was a kind of liquid choking noise from his throat and something very brownish green and viscous, the size of a walnut, was ejected from his right nostril. Wide-eyed, he grabbed it and began to pull; little tendrils ran away from the greasy little object, a tangled mesh that connected it to the inside of his nose. Carefully pulling at the stringy lattice, retching all the while, Seamus managed to extract a veritable spider’s web of mucus-covered tendrils that when collapsed into a ball, resembled a leftover pile of mutant brown spaghetti.”
  • When the Verdant Empress creates new ivy creatures, they are described at one stage as “burping embryos.”

Language:

  • “So help me gods” is used as an expletive once.
  • “Damn” is used 4 times. Two of those times, it is used as “Damn right.”
  • “What the devil” is used once.
  • The Dowager Governess “cursed once, quietly” after stepping on a toy.
  • “Oh gods” is used once.
  • Rachel has a “string of vitriolic curse words” for Curtis.
  • The phrase “cock-up” is used once.
  • “Shoot” is used once.
  • Someone says “sucks” once.

Magic/Supernatural: 

  • Some girls “waken” a dead woman, the Verdant Empress, with a spell and chant.
  • The Verdant Empress is described as a ghost or spirit.
  • The Synod is a religious sect that communicates with The Blighted Tree. They eat a parasitic plant that lives on The Blighted Tree, and the parasite makes the victim act like a mindless slave.
  • The Mystics practice meditation and “commune with flora.”
  • When the Elder Mystic died, the new Elder Mystic (along with the rest of the Mystics) hiked to a tree to tie a flag in memorial to the dead Elder Mystic. The tree is full of flags, honoring all the Elder Mystics that have died.
  • The Verdant Empress communicates to Zita by writing on a mirror with an unseen hand (on a mirror that fogs up at midnight).
  • Caliphs are members of the Synod that meditate at the Blighted Tree. Lots of folks had been praying secretly to the Blighted Tree.
  • Nico’s comrades thought he had died. One looks at him “as if he were a risen spirit.”
  • Prue can communicate with plants.
  • All animals talk in Wildwood.
  • “Wights and wyverns” are mentioned twice in passing.
  • “Good luck” and “wish me luck” are said a few times.
  • “Spirits and sprites haunted these woods.”
  • The Dowager Governess’ obsession with resurrecting her son is referred to as “the demon within her breast.”
  • The Dowager Governess consults “necromancers,” learns all kinds of magic spells and potions, and seeks an incantation to raise the dead.
  • Prue’s whistling sounds like “a drowned ghost.”
  • Mr. Unthank is caught in a position that is described as looking like a “campy vampire.”
  • “Deja vu” is mentioned once.
  • When the Verdant Empress rises from the dead, she comes back as a woman made of ivy.
  • There is a mention of “ghosts and sprites” in the woods.
  • Curtis and Septimus name their bandit hide-out “Bandit Hideout Deerskull Dragonfighter.”
  • Brendan’s forehead tattoo is considered a “totem.”
  • Someone says they are going to send the Verdant Empress “to the devil.”
  • Bandit Jack calls the Synod “devils,” and says they had put the bandits under a “spell.”
  • Martha asks Seamus “‘Are there ghosts? You know, in this world?’ The bandit guffawed a little, saying ‘Nah. Children’s stories. Campfire tales.’ Martha paused a moment, chewing on this logic. ‘But there are, like magic powers.’ ‘Sure.’ ‘And talking animals.’ ‘Why wouldn’t there be?’ ‘But ghost don’t exist.’ ‘Kiddie talk, there.'”
  • Martha remembers ghost stories she heard at the Unthank Home about “what ghost hunters and exorcists said when they bravely faced down some undead soul.”
  • Prue disappears into the ground, and comes back in place of a tree in her parents’ backyard.

Morality: 

  • The mechanical Prince Alexei killed himself by taking out his spring when he learned that he was not human any more. He was angry at his mother for bringing him back to life. When he is brought back again, he is very angry, and make Zita promise to unmake him after he stops his mother from destroying everything. (He ends up staying alive and ruling Wildwood with Zita.)
  • The bandits steal from their dance partners.

Potentially Offensive Behavior:

  • A few characters are described as “fat.”
  • Curtis mentions that the fort he built was inspired by the Ewok village (from Star Wars).
  • A “Jewfro” is mentioned once in passing.
  • Brendon, the Bandit King, has a tattoo on his forehead.

Romance/Sex: 

  • At a celebrations, “a mustachioed tenor who played up the bawdiest bits to the delight of the audience.” The “bawdiest bits” are not specified.
  • Boys “blushed to make eye contact with the May Queen.”
  • Joffrey Unthank and Desdemona Mudrak “kissed deeply” once before Mr. Unthank is shot in the back and then the tower explodes.

Scary Themes:

  • Some girls “waken” a dead woman, the Verdant Empress, with a spell and chant. She first communicates to Zita by writing on a mirror with an unseen hand (on a mirror that fogs up at midnight). When she is brought back to life, she takes on the form of a woman made of  ivy, and ivy covers up all of Wildwood and Portland.
  • There is a flashback to when Prince Alexei first died after falling off a horse. It is told from his mother’s perspective. “There was blood. A lot of blood… The red blood seeped onto the courtyard and welled about his head. His hair was matted with fresh blood, and his eyes were closed.
  • The Caliphs of the Synod eat “Spongiform,” a parasitic moss that grows on the blighted tree. It then attaches to their brain and makes them mindlessly follow the leaders. They try to get Prue to eat Spongiform, but she spits it out, is arrested and exiled to the Crag (a barren, exposed rocky place).
  • Elsie and a few of the Unadoptables sneak into Titan Tower to rescue Martha and Carol. They have to crawl through air ducts, and if they’re caught, Elsie fears they will be “fed to the dogs.” Two bodyguards discover the children and nearly catch them. One grabs Elsie’s foot, and she shakes free, leaving her shoe behind. They rescue Martha and escape just before the building is blown up.
  • When they are captured in Curtis’ nets, Roger says “No doubt we’ll all be making some tribe of cannibals a decent meal come morning.”
  • When Prue calls the parasite to come out of Seamus, it grows out of his nose. “There was a kind of liquid choking noise from his throat and something very brownish green and viscous, the size of a walnut, was ejected from his right nostril. Wide-eyed, he grabbed it and began to pull; little tendrils ran away from the greasy little object, a tangled mesh that connected it to the inside of his nose. Carefully pulling at the stringy lattice, retching all the while, Seamus managed to extract a veritable spider’s web of mucus-covered tendrils that when collapsed into a ball, resembled a leftover pile of mutant brown spaghetti.”
  • Prue and Seamus are marooned on a barren, rocky place. “Pieces of bone covered the ground like confetti on a parade ground.” They are left, standing “ankle deep in a wide carpet of discarded bones.”
  • There is a reference to the Dowager Governess attempting to sacrifice Prue’s baby brother.
  • Ivy takes over all of Wildwood and Portland.

Violence:

  • The Unadoptables have a rusty, old machete that they carry for self-defense. They call it Excalibur.
  • Nico and “The Chapeaux Noirs” blow up buildings and generally try to sabotage the Industrial Titans.
  • The Unadoptables discuss killing Nico.
  • There is a guillotine in the South Woods, and there are several references to beheadings. A line in a song says “Remove their sorry heads” and that “the blood of all the fascists will flow freely in the drains.”
  • The Chapeaux Noirs throw “bomblike objects” and also practice throwing knives (referenced once as the game “mumblety-peg”).
  • C-4 explosives are mentioned once.
  • Michael says to Mr. Unthank, “I swore that if I ever saw you again, I’d tear you limb from limb.” Michael spits on him instead.
  • There is a reference to The Chapeaux Noirs making bombs.
  • A Stevedore threatens to “kneecap” Elsie when he catches her.
  • Mr. Wigman has a gun and shoots Joffrey Unthank in the back. “A look of intense surprise awoke in Joffrey’s eyes as he pulled away from the kiss and his eyebrows jutted upward and his face slackened and his mouth fell open. The, a little trickle of blood, the bloom of a rose, appeared on his argyle sweater-vest and as it was absorbed by the fabric, it flowered out like an opening poppy, red and full, across the breadth of his chest.” He then pushes a button in his pocket and blows up the tower and everyone in it.
  • Prue and Seamus are held a “pistol-point” when marooned on the Crag. “The sailors held their pistols straight, their flintlocks cocked, and began to back away from the two convicted prisoners.”
  • Curtis (like all bandits) carries a saber. The bandits fight the ivy with swords and sabers.
  • Seamus gives a long dagger to Martha.

From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “I really enjoyed this book. It closed up all the mysteries the second book left open. There’s only one thing that I did not like: there are some more mysteries left at the end of this book. I would like to know more about what happened to Prue and the others. It just ended abruptly, like they ran out of pages.”

Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy - Book Review by What My Kids Read

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Comments

  1. I haven’t read any of this series but I’ll try to work it in – fantasy isn’t a big turn on to me but it sounds interesting. I didn’t read your whole review, though – i really appreciate your spoiler alerts and I always skip over those passages in your reviews if the book interests me.

  2. Great review! I’m new to your blog. I love how detailed your book reviews are, as it really helps people (like myself) decide the book is worth a read. Wildwood Imperium sounds like it might be fun. :-)

So what do you think?

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