I feel like I need to preface this review: if you are a hardcore fantasy fan this might be something you should struggle through for the few moments of clarity and true fantasy. In my experience this is a seminal piece of fantasy writing, but its not an easy read by any means.
I had incredibly hard time reading this book because while the language was beautiful and Shakespearean, it was very difficult to parse out what was actually being said due to the use of rural speech patterns and old English. There are three main characters, Sylvie, Ariane, and Tom the Wanderer. Sylvie was probably the easiest character to follow because the way she talked was full or rhyme and song. Ariane struggled the most, so her language was a mix of difficult words and obscure references, but Tom was the hardest character to follow because he mostly spoke in a distinct English dialect as well as in very obscure terms. When I was able to read without distractions I tended to make more sense of the prose, but generally I skimmed the paragraphs that just became too wordy.
Regardless of the difficulty of the prose, Gilman certainly has a magic touch when it comes to creating worlds. I'm not exactly sure of the time period the book is set in. It seems at once modern and historic, but I think that is part of the charm because the book is ageless and transcends time well. Most of the book takes place in a parallel world, a primordial wood, that exists beyond the edges of our world, that has been infected by a darkness wanting to prevent the spring from returning. Gilman draws on lots of English lore (Like Thomas the Rhymer), as well as classic fairy and nursery tales (MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin and Beatrix Potter) to add weight to her story. The three character lines interweave and diverge giving the reader a real sense of loss when Ariane loses Sylvie in the woods and great joy when they are reunited.
At once ancient and new, poetic and heavily worded, this novel is a true treat for fantasy lovers. If you like world building, adventures, and characters that have a journey of self discovery, then you might just want to pick this book up. But be warned it is not beach reading or quick story, this will definitely suck you in and make you work at loving it.