Rumble In Woodhollow by Jonathan Pembroke

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I didn’t know what to expect after reading Jonathan’s other book, Pilgrimage to Skara, several years ago for another SPFBO competition. I wasn’t actually a judge then, just a fan who was reading through 100 or so of the submissions. This is a totally different story with substantially different characters so it’s not “more of the same”.

The main characters are Faeries, they’re sisters and they don’t always get along because of their diametrically opposed personalities. The older sister runs a gang whose main source of revenue is a hallucinogenic mushroom. They sell it on the black market in a city where rival gangs are at each other’s throats, making the streets a dangerous place to venture alone or after dark.

The younger sister was living with their aunt as an apothecary’s assistant and decided she wanted a more exciting life. She was tired of toiling over pots and cauldrons making medicines. It’s hot and labor-intensive work after all. When she arrives at Woodhollow her sister puts her to work. Making mushroom tinctures. Unhappy with that role she starts to venture out with the crew and partaking in their after-hour thievery. It turns out she has a silver tongue and can talk herself out of bad situations, proving useful to the gang.  A mysterious faery shows up from the “Nightshade” clan, and it coincides suspiciously with their aunt’s disappearance.

The city kind of reminded me of a more adult version of Shrek’s city of Far Far Away. The
“Con’s” are one of the stronger gangs in the city, Cons being short for Leprechauns. Ogres keep the peace in the city. There are elves, dwarves, humans, faeries, leprechauns, goblins, gnomes, sprites, drakes, dragons – you name it and they are likely in this city.

I liked that this took a little side step I don’t often see in fantasy – drug wars and gang life. I see it most often in urban fantasy, and not so much in high fantasy. It was neat to see a mash of the two because the city felt very modern even with all the high fantasy races that populated it.

I liked the concepts for the world-building, it was imaginative and widespread. I wasn’t a huge fan of how it was delivered, though. A lot of

“Even if the dwarves are magically inept, they can’t help but suspect us if their casks of ale just vanish between the brewery and Woodhollow. Only so many races are magical.”

“Yep. Us, the Cons, the Dryads, though all have access to outside sources. Werevixens. And dark elves.”

If instead of a list we got a more natural description like: “Dryad’s heal shit and Werevixen’s transmogrify, neither of which would get ale off this ship. That just leaves us and the dark elves”  That sort of thing happened a lot, especially in the beginning. Sydney is very naive and sheltered and so the whole world had to be explained to her. That’s one thing, but having her be a little thick but also supposed to be smart is another. She runs into someone in the city and he calls her a “winger” in a nasty and mocking tone. That should be enough context clues for her to pick up what’s meant, seeing as she’s a faery. Having it explained to her was a little over-done with exposition where it didn’t need to be. That said, the narrative part of the story was good, it was just the dialogue that didn’t always work.

At first, I thought this was going to be a disjointed plotline that followed one heist after another, none of which really pertaining to the other –  just the daily life of something in a gang in a fantasy city. I was relieved when it turned out not to be the case. The pacing picked up for me about 34% when the rest of the plotline came into view. The more I read the more I liked it, and the less frequently the info dumps came into play, I found myself enjoying the latter half more than the first.

I liked the two characters, although I think I liked Marla more sometimes even though Sydney, the younger sister, was the main character. I have a difficult time connecting with more naive characters and tend to latch to battle-hardened/older/wiser/more experienced players.

Overall this had its strengths and weaknesses, and I’d say creativity, originality, and world-building were the strengths here. It just was muddied a bit by dialogue that had too many info-dumping banter scenes.

TLDR: Younger sister leaves quaint small town home to live with older sister who runs a gang. A gang that sells hallucinogenic mushrooms. Mysterious faery clan, Nightshade, makes a re-appearance when most people think of them as just scary stories to tell in the dark. Beloved aunt goes missing. Dwarves, Leprechauns, goblins, magic, gang life, younger MC, female MC, non-human POV. 


  • Plot: 11/15
  • Characters: 11/15
  • World Building: 12.5/15
  • Writing: 8/15
  • Pacing: 9/15
  • Originality: 12/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 6/10

Final Score: 69.5/100