As the tagline on the book suggests, Duncton Wood is "A clash of good and evil in the savage kingdom of moles." It bears comparison to Watership Down, but the moles are more anthropomorphic. As well as speaking, they worship the Stone, they scribe books and they have the capacity to love.
It is this capacity to love that brings us the story of Bracken and Rebecca, two moles who grow up in the Duncton Wood system. At the time of their birth, the system is being overthrown and then led by two evil moles - Mandrake and Rune. We learn over the course of the book that there are reasons for Mandrake's ability to be so cruel - his upbringing on the wild slopes of Siabod bred him that way - but Rune is pure evil.
Rune is perhaps the most interesting character in the book. I find Bracken a bit wishy-washy and whiny to start, and then slightly dense in the middle, and then hard to idenitfy with at the end. Rebecca is a sweet character, but I don't like the way she sighs in her speech.
This novel is all over the place regarding pacing. When Horwood is concentrating on the goings on in the Duncton system, describing the moles and their daily lives, he is at his strongest. These parts of the book fly by and I am never less than interested in what is happening to Mekkins and Rose and the Pasture moles.
At times Horwood goes into a whimsy of describing every tiny thing and there are a couple of occasions in the book that made me almost want to put it down in disgust - when Bracken is first exploring the Ancient System; when Boswell and Bracken journey to Siabod; when Bracken secretly attends the singing of the Song. These parts of the book really drag.
I also disliked greatly the descriptions of mating - these were far too sensual for what is, in essence, a book about animal (however human they may act at times). One instance in particular between Rune and Rebecca is almost obscene and made very, very difficult reading.
And the rape/incest scene that we get is a step too far. These parts of the book made me feel deeply uncomfortable and lead me to believe I would never want to re-read, however entertaining other parts of the book are.
And there are fun parts. The descriptions of the ever-changing woodland, the plants and the animals are superb - Horwood clearly has a great deal of sympathy and appreciation for the English countryside which comes out in his work. A number of his characters are excellent value for the entry fee - Mekkins is great fun; Rose is gentle and loving; Boswell is both mysterious and down-to-earth.
You have to suspend your disbelief massively in order to read this book. As well as the moles writing, they undertake massive journeys - Boswell and Bracken, in particular, travel from Duncton via Uffington to the heart of Wales. This is necessary from a plot point of view, but I just cannot pretend to belief that two little moles could accomplish this.
The worship of the Stone colours every little part of this book, which Horwood declares in his notes at the end is an allegory - probably for pagan worship. I understand that this only increases in the future books of the series, which disappoints me, because I found it a little too preachy.
All in all, a very uneven book, which was entertaining in parts, but couldn't hold my interest over the long haul.