Sash S. reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

“The Tox took teacher after teacher. Rules crumbling to dust and fading away, until only the barest bones were left.”

Body horror. Boarding school. Queer girls.

Wilder Girls promises a lot of cool things. Marketed as ‘a feminist Lord of the Flies’, one expects a grimdark pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, mixed with comfortingly familiar tropes of YA romance and maybe some creep-factor akin to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Erin Bowman’s Contagion.

Instead what happens is a mix of half-executed ideas that drift away from their potential, fizzling out and sadly getting lost.

Our story starts at the Raxter School for Girls, a boarding school on an island which is under quarantine due to a virus. The ‘Tox’ is deadly to some and not to others. Some are irreparably transformed, some cough up blood, some are taken to the infirmary and never seen again. This set-up is really cool and raises a lot of questions: What was this place like before? Why are the effects of the virus so wildly different? Who are all these teenage girls and how are they coping?

Unfortunately the backstory is never fully explained. Instead we get a feel for the loose structure of things on the island, just barely held together by the Headmistress, one other surviving teacher and the hope of an eventual cure. There’s routines of sorts and a strained peace between the different cliques of girls, dynamics that could have been compelling had the author spent just a little more time fleshing them out. Our main trio are a bundle of intense ride-or-die friendship and simmering romantic feelings, until two of them have an argument and the third goes missing.

And that’s where it all falls apart, as the novel phases out many of the things which initially made it interesting.

The main character’s internal monologue is full of stumbling, halted sentences and half-finished thoughts, a style that meshes well with some readers but may not for others. Her decisions, frustratingly, don’t always make sense. We don’t get much character development from her in the first instance and she comes across as fairly flat without an engaging narrative voice. The breaking of the trio emphasises this lack of development further; we don’t get much time to see them bouncing off one another, or invest in their relationship. As the story moves away from the school setting, we see less of the background girls who seemed so full of potential.

In short, things just… happen, without a lot of payoff.

The body horror is excellently written and one of my favourite parts of the book. There are gloriously creepy descriptions of transformed girls and strange things in the woods. There’s tension around the island and in the cliques, all built up as a ticking time bomb of female teenage fury waiting to explode into the second half of the novel. Sadly, the mystery falls flat. The author drops tantalising hints at the world outside of the Tox, but fails to deliver. The lack of resolution is disappointing, though the ending does leave room for a sequel, so maybe that itch for world-building will be scratched in the future.

There is also a secondary plot written from a different point of view which hints at hidden depths to a particular character, but again, lacking in payoff.

There’s romance, too, but it’s not the focal point of the novel. Our leads are unapologetically queer – “Even when she came out to me, it was like a weapon. ‘Queer’ she said then, as though she was daring me to disagree” – and directly address this in one of the most powerful lines in the novel. It’s great and so, so necessary to see a fiercely, unapologetically queer teenage girl in YA fiction and I fully appreciate that about Wilder Girls.

However, the romance builds, comes to fruition, clatters to a halt and subsequently isn’t mentioned again. It’s almost treated as an afterthought. The true feeling of love comes from the main character and her missing best friend, which is touching, but if you were expecting an explicit queer romance set against the backdrop of a horror story, you’re out of luck.

Wilder Girls seems to have a mixture of reviews on the extremes of those who either love it or hate it, so it’s worth checking out just to see for yourself. There are good bits, namely in the body horror and setting and raw potential, but it’s hard not to be disappointed, as as it’s certainly not the modern Lord of the Flies that was promised.

Rating: **

Sash S reviews The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

“Let the sea take it.”

The Gloaming begins with jellyfish washing up near a cliff by the sea, on an island where the residents die slow deaths by turning to stone. It’s a sad, strange and beautiful scene, just one of many sprinkled throughout this novel.

Our protagonist is Mara, who falls in love with Pearl, who is a selkie or a mermaid or perhaps neither? Myth and metaphor wind around one another, the author weaving multiple fairytales together to create one of her own. Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. All of this is set against the backdrop of an island with “dark, tarry magic” and the tragic loss of the protagonist’s little brother who was swept out to sea. The novel follows Mara and her family as they try to move through their grief, living their lives amidst the push and pull of the island.

It’s up to the reader to decide, in many places, how much of the island’s magic is real and how much is not. In that sense, The Gloaming is an excellent example of magical realism.

It’s also a beautifully written book. The island is painted so vividly it’s not hard to see how Mara and her family are drawn to it. Sentences flow like poetry – or dare I say, like water – with such careful, well-chosen language it’s easy to get swept up in it.

The novel asks big questions about grief and love and family, and answers them by waving its arms in wide, sweeping arcs. True to its title, The Gloaming is shadowy and mysterious and leaves much unsaid. Instead it asks its readers to read between the lines – there are leaps in time, flashes backwards and forwards, conversations we aren’t fully privy to. The plot meanders through at a leisurely pace, with all of the focus being on simply exploring the characters the story presents to us.

That lack of clarity might be frustrating for some, but it fits with the central themes of the novel rather well. The overwhelming confusion of loss; the sharp pain of hope; half-forgotten stories of childhood; a yearning to be somewhere else but not being quite sure where that somewhere else is. Mara’s queerness melds naturally into these themes, but we skirt around the edges of the harder truths of coming out in a small community. The reluctance to be affectionate with Pearl in front of her family is just barely addressed, for example, and we rarely see the world or anyone in it outside of the main characters.

That said, Mara and Pearl’s relationship is only a fraction of the novel. It’s not a romance, so much as a fantasy that threads romance throughout it. Each member of Mara’s family is fleshed-out and we get to peek inside all of their heads, with every familial relationship explored. Signe and Peter, the parents, are delightful to read about. We spend a lot of time with Mara, who, like the “changeling” motif she is associated with, is seen so differently by so many. She’s brave, sensitive, sad, loving, angry and self-conscious all at once. Ultimately, she’s a fascinating protagonist.

Motifs are everywhere: water, stone, time, death, wind, air. It’s very much a modern-day fairytale that pays homage to the centuries of fairytales that preceded it.

If you’re looking for a story that’s purely about romance, The Gloaming might not be for you. However, if you want to read a haunting fantasy that happens to have a queer romance, this is a great book to dive into.