A sapphic, witchy book with the vibes of The Great Gatsby, this is definitely going to be a hit with a lot of readers… but not so much for me!
Book: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Publication date: 31st March 2022
Ownership: Proof sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: a long and intense list – please visit author’s website.
In the aftermath of World War I, a naive woman is swept into a glittering world filled with dark magic, romance, and murder in this lush and decadent debut.
On Crow Island, people whisper, real magic lurks just below the surface.
Neither real magic nor faux magic interests Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s only on the island to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one.
Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the biggest one may be her enigmatic new neighbor.
Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of the island’s extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit magic might be death.
I really struggled with this book. If a friend hadn’t told me the second half got better, I think I would have DNFed it at around 150 pages, because something about it just really wasn’t clicking for me; having finished it, I’m not sure the second half was better enough to make the experience worth it. A part of this is down to my personal preferences, which don’t lean towards the angsty, morally grey ends of the scale, and a part is down to the book itself not being quite as cohesive as I’d hoped.
If you’ve heard of this book before, it’s probably because someone’s summed it up as ‘if The Great Gatsby was sapphic and witchy’, which I admit is a superb hook. This is an extremely atmospheric book, and if you’re a fan of Gatsby vibes, then the mysterious, decadent parties and unspoken tensions of Crow Island are going to be right up your street. The writing is beautiful, with a really vivid way with imagery; it’s easy to imagine the wind-whipped beach and the glamorous houses. However, I had a real issue with those Gatsby vibes, in that I never felt like the story managed to shake off its inspiration – I was always comparing, always looking for the links between the two, and it stopped me from really connecting to this story in its own right. It also feels very American in setting, with its island full of holiday homes and its temperance theme, despite its supposed location just off the coast of Yorkshire. It’s not a straightforward Gatsby retelling (and if it was I would have avoided it!), so for me I would have preferred this to stand on its own a little more.
The story itself is deeply focused on interpersonal drama, with little shown beyond the interactions of the main cast: mousy newcomer Annie; her socialite childhood friend Bea and Bea’s husband, Arthur; glamorous and tortured witch Emmeline and her adopted siblings, Nate and Isobel. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t really connect to any of them, and I think I know exactly why. With Annie’s viewpoint we’re thrown into a world we don’t understand, coming up against lifelong trauma and a web of past connections and interactions we have no hope of unpicking. In a book like this there are two ways to make sure the reader eventually discovers what’s going on: either have Annie find out or be told these backstories on page in her viewpoint chapters, or have the other characters, the ones with mystery about them, reveal it in theirs. Instead, what this book does is keep everything under a veil of mystery for pretty much the whole story, with memories being name-checked but not explored, or whole prior relationships being assumed to be understood; there’s unreliable narration, and then there’s this, which felt to me like being deliberately obscure for the sake of it. I cannot overstate how important the tangled histories of Emmeline, Bea and Arthur are to the plot, which is why it’s a completely bizarre choice to never fully explain them to the reader. Because I never felt like I understood the characters’ motivations, it was hard for me to care about them.
I also felt like the magic was treated in a similarly confusing way – the plot hinges on the illegality of magic, but even within that there seem to be shades of acceptability to some kinds of magic, like a sort of magical alcohol being more or less fine, but blood magic being dangerous. Again, this was never openly discussed so when characters were horrified to find someone performing one of the ‘bad’ magics, I as the reader had no frame of reference for their reactions. I’m not expecting a Sanderson-style appendix in every fantasy book – I love a good soft magic system – but there’s a lot about balance and debt being part of magic and I genuinely didn’t understand how this worked, which made it tricky to judge when or why people were going too far or what I ought to be shocked about.
Okay, all of that being said, while I do think this book is a little messy in its presentation, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that some of it was just its vibes not hitting my buttons. I’ve written many times on this blog about not enjoying fiction that focuses on traumatising its characters, nor characters who are ‘morally grey’ in a way that just makes them mean to those around them. I don’t have a lot of patience for people who see themselves as tortured and make their own situations worse out of self-destructive habits. Perhaps I’m childish for preferring stories where people try hard to do the right thing (even if it pushes them down dark paths) but I just find books like this, where everyone is selfish and miserable, depressing to read. So that’s on me for not realising this would be the specific brand of dark fantasy I try to avoid.
It’s a hard one to rate because while I didn’t have a great time with it, I think those who enjoy the kind of drama the book showcases, or those looking for sapphic romance with a lot of angst, will be in for a treat; it’s very much an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. I think three out of five cats, overall.
3 thoughts on “Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May”
Oh man, I think we have similar tastes in regard to morally grey characters, and not enough explanation about magic systems. I was looking forward to this book, but now I might put it off for a bit before trying. Good review!
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Thank you – though sorry to be the bearer of bad news if you were keen on this one! It’s definitely still worth a try, I think it’s all very much in how much you get on with the characters so it’s possible if you like Annie, the less morally grey one, more than I did it might see you through!
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