Review: Wicked Like a Wildfire

I will admit, part of the reason I picked this book up was because it takes place in Montenegro. My father’s father is from Montenegro. I spent my childhood summers in Montenegro, running barefoot along the rocky beaches. I have never seen a book that took place in Montenegro—much less a YA fantasy about two sister witches take place in Montenegro. I’m already predisposed to books about sisters and books about witches, so this was an easy pick.

This book is about twin sisters, Iris and Malina, who both possess a type of magic known as a “gleam.” Essentially, they can manipulate the world around them to be more beautiful: Iris can turn things into fractals, Malina has a polyharmonic voice. Their mother shares this talent and has told them to keep it hidden. Malina complies, Iris rebels. The plot kicks off when their mother is severely injured to the brink of death and things start disappearing—from their homes and from local churches. Along with their friends Luka and Niko, Iris and Malina try to figure out the secrets that their mother kept from them and how their magic fits into it all.

Let me just preface this the same way I once prefaced a review of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern—if you are looking for Harry Potter-esque battle-style magic, this is not the book for you. While I am a big Potter fan, I feel like JK Rowling has accidentally ruined the prospect of most other books about magic with that inevitable comparison. The magic in this book is not the same as the world of HP. It is carefully crafted, brilliantly described, and its own special thing.

I enjoyed this book, but that is not to say it was perfect.

It starts off a little clunky. It took me a bit to get into it, to get used to the descriptive prose. The beginning is slow. It drags a bit, but once it kicks off, a lot of plot happens. One of the things I personally found a little off-putting was that the plot structure of this book seemed more like this:

cliffhanger

Than the traditional:

resolution

All the action happened in the last few chapters of the book, where the beginning was paced slowly. That was a big criticism I read on other reviews; some people did not like the slow-paced beginning, but I thought it was effective in lulling my interest.

The ending though seemed like a very blatant sequel hook.

But you know what? I bought it. I’m hooked. I want more. I’m looking forward to the next one.

My other biggest critique was the dialogue. It was…awkward. I’ve read books with alright dialogue and I’ve read books with stellar dialogue and the dialogue in this book fluttered around alright—it definitely surged up to better at times, but then dipped right back down. It works—if you read it with an Eastern European accent in mind. Which I have easy access to, being around Croatians and Montenegrins for a lot of my life.

When I used those voices, it made sense, it worked, it was brilliant even: the gratuitous use of nicknames and pet names, for one, seemed odd when I read it in my American inside voice, but then I just imagined my cousins, my grandparents, my father—and Luka calling his sister ‘gnat’ and ‘brat’ made sense, because my father calls us ‘little mouse’ and ‘little bur’ (in the Serbo-Croatian translation) and my grandmother calls us ‘darlings’ and ‘sweethearts’ and no one ever calls me by my proper name. When I kept that in mind, the dialogue worked—it was stellar even. But then a very glaring piece of American slang would work its way into that and snap me out of it (I’m thinking specifically of a line where Iris says “biffles” which completely drew me out). Not to say that Balkan teenagers can’t use American slang, but it was just jarring and felt more like an attempt to engage the American teen audience than an authentic approach to dialogue.

But those critiques are easily overshadowed by what I did like from the book.

My other biggest critique was the dialogue. It was…awkward. I’ve read books with alright dialogue and I’ve read books with stellar dialogue and the dialogue in this book fluttered around alright—it definitely surged up to better at times, but then dipped right back down. It works—if you read it with an Eastern European accent in mind, which personally I have easy access to, being around Croatians and Montenegrins for a lot of my life. When I used those voices, it made sense, it worked, it was brilliant even: the gratuitous use of nicknames and pet names, for one, seemed odd when I read it in my American inside voice, but then I just imagined my cousins, my grandparents, my father—and Luka calling his sister ‘gnat’ and ‘brat’ made sense, because my father calls us ‘little mouse’ and ‘little bur’ (in Serbo-Croatian) and my grandmother calls us ‘darlings’ and ‘sweethearts.’ When I kept that in mind, the dialogue worked—it was stellar even. But then a very glaring piece of American slang would work its way into that and snap me out of it (I’m thinking specifically of a line where Iris says “biffles” which completely drew me out). Not to say that Balkan teenagers can’t use American slang, but it was just jarring and felt more like an attempt to engage the American teen audience than an authentic approach to dialogue.

But those critiques are easily overshadowed by what I did like from the book.

I loved the magic, first and foremost. It was unique, it was a different sort of thing than you’re used to seeing, which is why I brought up the reference to “The Night Circus” in the beginning. Magic has become associated with bangs and battles and a clear good vs. evil line. But this subtler magic of manipulating the world and reality is something I’ve always been drawn to. The way Popovic describes the “gleam” is beautiful—each moment is written with such richness and detail.

The folklore and mythology of this book were also huge wins for me. I may be saying that as a half-Slavic woman with newfound interest in local folktales, but I think the version of the goddess Morana used in this book is amazing. I won’t spoil much, but I liked the subversion from making her either a completely good figure or a completely bad figure. The same goes for the other “antagonists” of this book.

Once the plot picked up, it did a very good job of holding my attention and never letting go. It was not all fast-paced, but was intriguing enough to keep me reading.

Some last few things that really meant a lot to me in particular—I liked the fact that Iris and Malina are half-Japanese. I’m half-Chinese and half-Yugoslavian (Croatia and Montenegro used to be one big country). I have never ever read a character who fell into a racial and ethnic blend as close to mine as Iris and Malina. Most half-Asian characters get slapped with a generic white American half, as to not overwhelm the reader with culture clash (try growing up reconciling two completely different cultures surrounded by a third one that doesn’t approve of either). Now, I know their Japanese culture was not nearly as much of a driving force in the book as their Montenegrin one, but Iris’s desire to connect with that half of her that she never knew resonated with me. I understood their feelings of not feeling like they belong, of looking different. I really appreciate that even though there was no need for their father to be Japanese (he could’ve easily been American or British or some other generic Western European figure), that he was and that added a level of relatability to Iris, at least for me.

I loved the sister rivalry. I have a little sister and while I love her and while we do get along—there is a rivalry. I think anyone with a sister can attest to that. I’m not sure which one of us would be Iris and Malina in this situation, but I enjoyed the complex nature of their relationship. We only get Iris’s point of view, but it’s a lovely mashup of jealously and love.

And the last thing—there is LGBT representation in this novel! A few chapters in, I caught a whiff of it and I was really hoping that I wasn’t just wishfully thinking. I won’t say who, because that is a spoiler, but it is there and it is a very driving plot point.

TLDR:

The slow beginning and the occasionally clunky dialogue are overshadowed by the excellent worldbuilding and mythology, the unique type of magic, the strong characters and relationships, and the beautiful descriptions. I’m giving this book 4 stars out of 5—while I do love its positive traits, I understand that a lot of that comes from a personal place for me specifically. I look forward to the sequel!

Next book on my list… All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

 

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