The appeal of Wicked Like a Wildfire will likely depend on your reading preferences – it is a technically solid YA book featuring a strong main protagonist. But it also suffers from the same issues that we find in so many debut authors: the writing is overly flowery, the plot a slow burn that can be hard to slog through, and the protagonist completely unlikable. Ironically, the things that should help make this a unique read instead feel like an anti trope – the more that was revealed, the more familiar the ground felt and the less impressed I became with the story. That said, I also did not like Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series – of which this book shares many of the same elements (interesting old European flavor, witches/magic, demons and good/bad characters, and a character who is stubborn and disenfranchised from her society).
Story: Iris and Malina, twins, live in a quiet and quaint Montenegro village with their mother. Each girl has a unique ability – they can do a bit of magic. But their mother has warned them about doing it and the girls have hidden their abilities, even to the point of almost losing them. But then a strange woman appears, their mother is attacked and left in a mysterious coma, and with the help of their best friends, a brother and sister of Romany descent, they begin to uncover the mystery surrounding their hidden heritage.
The magic system here is based on the senses and so a LOT of time is spent on very flowery and specific descriptions of each of the senses and how the magic affects it. Whether it be taste, or sight, or song, it gets to be a bit much at times. I can appreciate that it helps to understand how the magic works on a person – but it also greatly slowed the pace of the book.
Our protagonist, Iris, is one of the most unlikable heroines I’ve come across in a long time. She smokes, she gets horribly drunk, isn’t too picky about one night stands with strange boys, and she is nasty to everyone around her. She also isn’t very bright. Of course, by the end of the book there will be a reason she’s been driven that way – but it doesn’t justify it or make me like her any more by that time. I found I was kind of hoping she was the one who got offed instead of her mother since her mother seemed much more interesting than she did (or her juxtapositionally perfect and sweet sister). Since it is only Iris’ viewpoint, we don’t get much on the other sister, Malina, who often feels very one-dimensional. Again, this is on purpose since Malina will have some surprises for her self absorbed sister but by then, I just didn’t care about either.
Side characters fared much worse. Best friends and fellow outcasts Luka and Nick feel like caricatures. Of course, Luka’s interest in Iris is obviously written but we’re not given much reason for him to be so stricken with Iris other than that her witchiness makes her bewitching to all. If anything, from the way she treats/ignores him, it’s hard to like or respect him as a love interest when he’s that stupid. Iris is nasty to everyone, constantly, and it’s like being around a self obsessed, hormone addled, over-indulged 13 year old. There’s no depth to her at all and turning her into the victim in the end felt disingenuous.
There are the usual YA urban fantasy cliches here: ‘speshul snowflake’ who doesn’t know she’s a super power, a parent who think protecting her children means not telling them anything of the dangers they are facing and then who gets summarily offed before doing so, love interest who thinks someone’s nastiness means they are ‘spirited’ and strong (when in fact they are just jerks), and the usual round of eeeevil characters whose motivations are always purely self interest and greed. There’s not a lot of nuance here.
Where Wicked Like a Wildfire succeeds is in giving us an idealized version of the author’s home of Montenegro. The author is careful to eschew modern technology, making the village feel more like it housed Gepetto’s hut in Pinocchio than a real place. No internet, not much cell phones or other modern conveniences are in the book purposely, even the cars feel 1920s. It’s a place out of time where it is suitable for an urban fantasy of witches to be able to exist in modern times. Perhaps that is why Iris sneaking out to get stoned and drunk, coming back reeking of alcohol and hangover, and then fighting with her mother, who just shrugs and says she dresses and acts like a whore, feels very jarring.
I read Wicked Like A Wildfire through to the end but honestly didn’t enjoy it. There wasn’t anything new here, I didn’t like the characters, and the anachronistic setting didn’t work with such a thoroughly and modernly unpleasant teen main character like Iris. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.