I really enjoyed the feminist lessons of this novel — girls, don’t be afraid to be angry, to be wild, to scream! — but oh my goodness, did I want to take a red pencil to the fantasy aspects and just tighten everything up so it all fit into its own internal logic!
Centuries ago, young Paheli was sold by her mother to a rich man who raped her. Running away from her horrible violation, she crossed paths with a beaten boy who had stars in his eyes, who threw her a box of jewels before running away. She pressed a jewel to her hand and it sank in, allowing her to open doors to the Beyond, a sort of magical passageway bordering the human realm, where fantastical creatures known as Middle Worlders could traverse between cities without worrying about things like distance and time. As the decades pass, Paheli gathers a group of teenage girls much like herself, all of whom have been betrayed by their parents and abused. To the Middle World they are known as The Wild Ones, a roving pack of girls whose screams can short circuit the brains of Middle Worlders and humans alike.
When they find out that the boy who first gave Paheli, and by extension the rest of them, abilities is in desperate need of their help, they barely hesitate to come to his aid. Tho Paheli has been searching for him for years — if not for an explanation, then at the very least to thank him for his mysterious, life-changing gift — Taraana has proven elusive. Now they discover why: he’s been held prisoner by the Keeper of the Waterways of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most powerful magic-wielders of their time, who has been torturing the younger man in order to farm his tears for their undiluted magic. Once, long ago, Taraana managed to flee with the box collecting his crystallized sorrow, and gave them to a strange girl for safekeeping before being captured again. He’s escaped once more, and hopes the girls can help him figure out a way to stay free.
The Wild Ones close ranks around him like he’s one of their own, even as romantic feelings begin to grow between him and Paheli. Soon, their little pack is crisscrossing the world in their search for answers, finding allies but also unexpected threats. Will the girls be able to save Taraana, themselves and perhaps something even greater than all of them combined?
I think if I’d read this as a teenager I would have loved this empowering fantasy novel unequivocally. As an adult, while I still very much enjoyed the frankness and femininity and fierce criticism of both sexism and patriarchy, I wanted far more solid world-building. While I can forgive the intentional vagueness of the Book Of Memories bits (tho sometimes they were so vague as to make me wonder what the point of them was. The worst entries made the girls sound emo instead of abused,) I had a hard time shaking the feeling that the fantasy world was only incidental window dressing for the feminism. And that’s fine! Nafiza Azad’s feminism is inclusive (fuck you, terfs) and eloquent; it’s hard not to be moved by the beauty and heart and raw emotion of her words. But that only made the partially-baked fantasy elements feel less carefully crafted in comparison, which was disappointing.
I was also disappointed in the potentially romance-ending conflict between Paheli and Taraana. While I’d enjoyed their banter and awkward honesty up till then, I found myself deeply irritated by Taraana’s passive-aggressive response to Paheli’s separating herself from the pack, putting herself in danger in order to safeguard the rest of them. I mean, I thought she was being ridiculous too, but I did not appreciate his immediate coldness, followed by his threat to leave if she didn’t capitulate to his demands. It’s like, “Bitch, she’s trying to protect YOU!” I understand that they’re teenagers who’ve never had a relationship before, but if I’m supposed to accept that his tears open magical pathways between cities, I think I can accept that he’d behave with a little more emotional maturity and a lot less manipulative withholding than he did here.
But that’s all me speaking as a grown up with years of experiencing bad behavior (most often at a remove, thank goodness!) As an adult, tho, I definitely appreciated the rest of it, with a special shoutout to the choice to float between first person singular and plural narratives, which added to the magic of the tale. This is a great book to feed the young fantasy enthusiast in your life who needs more feminism and empowerment in theirs.
The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad was published August 3 2021 by Margaret K McElderry Books and is available from all good booksellers, including