Blurb from Goodreads:
It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.
It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.
But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.
I added this book to my Goodreads TBR on December 22nd 2018, and now that I’ve finally closed the last page on this book, I’m reeling. This is a brutally dark and engrossing read, and while I don’t think ‘enjoyed’ is the right word, it definitely met my high expectations which only increased from anticipation after waiting for all these months!
Btw, in case you think I’m exaggerating about how dark this is, make sure you check out the list of trigger and content warnings posted by the author so that you can prepare yourself!
I admired the savage creativity and unflinching exploration of the physical trauma the Raxter girls are put through. Good looks are normally such an important part of YA where even our ostensibly Plain Jane protagonist will describe her smooth glowing complexion and sparkling blue-green eyes or some such; in Wilder Girls, if someone has glowing skin, you can bet that will mean LITERALLY radiating light. (This isn’t one of the traits that has emerged, but a character has glowing hair to go with her silver fish-scale hand!)
I had crossed my fingers for a YA version of Annihilation and this was far superior in my opinion because rather than the main characters observing mutations in creatures around them, the girls here are observing it in themselves. Alexa, ratchet the horror up to a factor of a million. :O
My other eye’s dead, gone dark in a flare-up. Lid fused shut, something growing underneath. It’s like that with all of us here. Sick, strange and we don’t know why. Things bursting out of us, bits missing and pieces sloughing off, and then we harden and smooth over.
Hetty is our primary protagonist and the bulk of the narration is from her perspective, although we switch to her BFF, Byatt, for the occasional chapter. It occurs to me now that I’ve come to write this review that I don’t actually know very much about Hetty to be able to describe her – because we are thrown into the story in media res, we never meet the girls at Raxter’s when life was normal and they were just simple carefree schoolgirls. Then again, even Hetty doesn’t have a solid grasp on her identity:
Reese holds herself apart and all I’ve ever wanted was to be half of someone else. Coming to Raxter, it was like I hadn’t found my place until I got here. Like I didn’t know who I was until Byatt told me.
Having found someone who validated and completed her, Hetty isn’t one to sit by complacently when Byatt goes missing. There’s no force more powerful than a teenage girl in search of her (platonic) soulmate! What drew me to this book in the first place was that our heroine’s quest is to save her female best friend, which isn’t a story I’ve seen before. For a love interest or a family member, sure, but this is new to me and I loved the depth of Hetty’s dedication to Byatt. ❤
Some readers may find it slow to start as Byatt’s disappearance mentioned in the blurb only takes place about a third into the book, but I thought it made more sense to show glimpses of the girls’ relationship so that it’s believable for Hetty to go to such great lengths to find out what happened to her. I felt more invested in the story as the stakes were higher after having grown to care about Byatt and appreciating her importance by seeing her character interacting with Hetty as opposed to just being told she matters.
The author also takes this time to vividly bring to life the strange and horrifying circumstances that the girls live in, and flesh out their ‘new normal’ with the ongoing pain and suffering they’re going through. As the story picks up eighteen months after the Tox began, the initial panic and chaos has settled into uneasy dreary resignation and the changes to their routine have been established. I liked how the author thought through the changes both on an organizational level, for instance, setting up Gun Shift girls to monitor the perimeter and shoot any threats from the aggressive mutated wildlife, as well as on a social level – a girl who experiences her first flare-up of the Tox is given a present for surviving this rite of passage. I’m a sucker for small throwaway details like these which make the world feel more lived-in!
While there isn’t a ton of action in the first part of the book, reading about the girls living under siege from the Tox affecting the animals outside as well as their own bodies inside is super intense and horrifying enough on its own. The second half of the book ramps up the action and gore ten-fold to the point it’s absolutely nerve-wracking and I could’ve screamed from the tension. My stomach also wanted to revolt against me at one stage when I read a particularly graphic description, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned!
You may have heard about sapphic content in Wilder Girls – that was another aspect that caught my attention. 😀 I’ll note that there isn’t any overt romance, being that the girls spend most of their time in pain, anticipating more pain or scheming and sneaking around. However I thought the touch of romance included was perfect, just enough to be a sweet ray of light in the midst of the gloom & doom, but not too much to make you want to smack sense into them for being flighty when lives are at stake! The conflict that arises between the couple is typically Wilder Girls, very gruesome and heartbreaking and you can’t blame either girl for their viewpoint. I really appreciated that it wasn’t a tired retread of the old ‘miscommunication to force them apart’ cliche, but something very specific to this environment and entirely understandable.
What I found a bit disappointing was the lack of closure – when I realized that I had read the final chapter and there was only the acknowledgements left, I couldn’t believe it! This doesn’t appear to be the first of a series, so I found the conclusion a bit deflating whereas if I knew there was a sequel, I would be more satisfied with how it ended. As it is, the girls may have answers, but nothing was resolved and it felt much too abrupt to even qualify as an open ending.
However I still recommend this to anyone who wants to read a unique, suspenseful and gory YA horror with a solid female friendship at its core. The world-building is absolutely fantastic and I’m astonished to discover that this is a debut novel because that level of detail and ability to immerse the reader into this strange new world was so effortless and polished. I’m keeping an eye on this author and ready to bookmark the next release so I can wait in anticipation for months and months!
Personal Rating: 4 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.
Praise from other bloggers:
Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.