Few writers working today write fantastical settings as well as Catherynne M. Valente. That’s the case in both her works for adults and for younger readers. “Palimpsest” and “Radiance,” both in the former camp, abound with locations that remain utterly captivating and immersive long after you’ve finished the books. And while “Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods” offers plenty to intrigue readers young and old, it seems fitting to begin with the setting. After all, that’s what Valente does in this book.

In a short opening chapter in which the narrator describes the book as “a fairy tale,” they add a warning: “This book may look sweet and whimsical and a bit funny, but the truth is, it’s quite dangerous.”  The statement is worth heeding. Valente can write memorable comic characters and deft wordplay, but her playfulness contrasts with some of the novel’s other elements, including an all-encompassing sense of regret.

Valente, who lives on Peaks Island, introduces readers to two places that fall in love: the Forest and the Valley. But like any couple that draws apart, the Forest and the Valley eventually each seeks its own society and its own inhabitants. “Old married folk say they love each other to the ends of the earth – but somewhere, the earth does end,”  Valente writes. The fissure between these two primal beings foreshadows the conflicts to come.

Soon enough, Valente introduces the novel’s protagonist, Osmo, a descendent of the man who discovered the village of Littlebridge, led there by a trail of mushrooms. Osmo is 13 and restless; nearly everything in his hometown bores him. The one exception is a mysterious pillar topped with a nonhuman skull.

Among Osmo’s frustrations are that some townspeople expect him to go into the family business: His mother, Tilly, is a hunter of some renown. But Osmo does find one aspect of the job appealing: For fear of beings known as Quidnunx, who live in the woods, hunters are the only humans permitted to go there. One day, Tilly arrives in town covered in mysterious golden blood, the result of her having accidentally killed a Quidnunx.

To offset his mother’s act, Osmo is told by a creature named Bonk the Cross that he must embark on a quest to fulfill the terms of a long-ago treaty. As Tilly’s firstborn son, Osmo must “Wed the Quidnunk Ghost and Go with Them to the Land of the Dead and Carry Their Ghost Bags and Other Useful Things Like That.” Joined by Bonk and Never, a pangirlin, Osmo sets off into the unknown on a metaphysical quest that spans the worlds of the living and the dead.


“Osmo Unknown” proves the kind of fairy tale where the hero accomplishes their goals by virtue of their cleverness. Osmo’s gradual bonding with Bonk and Never is a central element of the narrative, as is his gradual awareness of the larger world in which he lives – not just the village, but also the woods and the creatures who call it home.

Valente’s penchant for settings extends to some of the properties of the fantastical realms she chronicles. Partway through the novel, Osmo, Never and Bonk harm the landscape they’re in solely by being living beings there. A game called doublechess recurs throughout the book, going from curiosity to an essential part of the story. Valente makes the Quidnunx memorable in their own right, with just enough dialogue to reveal that they genuinely see the world in a different way from humans, as when the Quidnunk Mumpsimus says, “My sentences have been red and cold, but now they are purple and soft.”

As befits a novel where setting is critical, some of the most compelling prose come when Valente is describing the uncanny, such as this moment when a proliferation of mushrooms arrives on the scene: “And they popped out of the ground, hundreds and hundreds of them, right in front of Mr. Unknown, glittering and glowing in the soft blue heart of the evening like fairy lanterns.”

“Stories are strange beasts,” Valente writes late in the book. Indeed. Ambitious and unpredictable, “Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods” is also charming and compelling. Valente may be working in all-ages mode here (the publisher suggests ages 8 to 12), but she doesn’t stint on the mystery or the weirdness, and the novel is stronger for it.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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