Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019)

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Feminist horror, yes please and thank you, may I have some more?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for suicide.)

The Tox didn’t just happen to us. It happened to everything. […]

The way it happened is that the woods got it first. That’s what I think, anyway. Even before the wilderness reached inside us, it was seeping into the earth. The trees were growing taller, new saplings springing up faster than they had any right to. And it was fine; it was nothing worth noticing, until I looked out the window and couldn’t see the Raxter I knew anymore. That morning two girls tore each other’s hair out over breakfast with an animal viciousness, and by afternoon the Tox had hit us.

“We’ve been studying them,” Paretta says, crouching down in front of me. “The irises, and the blue crabs too. All of this is something we’re calling the Raxter Phenomenon.”

A phenomenon. Not a sickness, not a disease. It burns through my heart—that’s the word I’ve been looking for—but there’s something about the way she says it. The name too familiar, too easy on her tongue.

“Did they teach you about Raxter Blues at school?” she asks. “About what makes them special?”

I nod.

You mean the lungs

“And the gills,” Paretta says. “It’s pretty amazing, right? So it can survive anywhere. And I think it’s pretty amazing, too, that you girls are part of it now.”

Part of it. The way our bodies alter and bend. The way our fingers darken just before we die, pure black spreading up to our knuckles.

I think I have been a problem all my life. Here I am where problems go. First Raxter and now here, and I have always been heading here, haven’t I, haven’t I. Too bright and too bored and something missing, or perhaps something too much there.

The several hundred tweens and teens who attend the Raxter School for Girls run the gamut. Some, like Hetty Chapin, were admitted on scholarship when her father, a Navy man, was stationed at nearby Camp Nash. Others are warehoused there by parents who didn’t know how to deal with them; this would describe Hetty’s bestie Byatt. And then there’s Reese, the third point in this particular triumvirate (just one of many cliques at Raxter), who grew up on the island and whose father, Mr. Harker, works as a groundskeeper and general caretaker at Raxter.

Aside from the occasional tour group, he’s also the only cis man to walk Raxter Island on the regular. (That we know of! Dun dun duuuun!)

Raxter was already home to several biological anomolies – the Raxter irises, which bloom all year long; and the Blues, crabs that sport both gills and lungs for all-terrain survival – so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Tox hit, altering the landscape of Raxter in ways both horrifying and wondrous. The flora took over, transforming Raxter into a forested backdrop from so many Grimm fairy tales. The nonhuman inhabitants grew to monstrous sizes. Predators became vicious and unpredictable, and even herbivores like deers sprouted canines better suited to ripping flesh from bones than leaves from trees.

And the girls.

The girls were either reclaimed or transformed by the wild, depending on your point of view; made a part of Raxter’s savage, shifting ecosystem, or else metamorphosed into something new. Something better. By which I mean something better suited to its environment; something with more favorable odds of survival. Their old environment or new one, you ask? Both. Neither. All of the above.

When the Tox hit, it changed everyone, though not in the same ways. One of Hetty’s eyes fused shut. Byatt grew a second spine and, eventually, her voice became a weapon capable of inflicting great violence. Reese’s skin turned silver and scaly, one of her hands grew lizard claws, and her hair took on an ethereal aura. Some girls grew teeth inside of them and coughed them up at night; one started to feel a second heartbeat in her chest. Blisters, boils, bruises, sores, scars. Webbed fingers and gills. No one bothers to hide their anomalies anymore; what’s the point?

Most of the adults dropped dead, save for Ms. Welch and the Headmistress. Mr. Harker started acting erratic and then disappeared into the woods. Some of the girls succumbed as well; the rest live in constant dread of the next flare-up.

Raxter Island is under quarantine; the school, already surrounded by an imposing iron fence, has become a prison/sick ward. Already isolated, internet service to Raxter was cut off pretty quickly. The regular supply drops help, but it seems that there’s never enough food to go around. Camp Nash, along with the Navy and CDC, implores the girls to stay alive and wait for help to come.

But it’s been a year and a half. How long can they hold on?

Spoiler alert: not much longer. When Byatt falls ill – by which I mean extremely ill, sicker than the others and in such bad shape that she cannot get around on her own – and is sent up to the super-secretive infirmary wing of the school, it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring everything to a head. Everyone at Raxter misses someone, or something. The question becomes, to what depths are they willing to sink to get it?

Wilder Girls is such a great story – true, edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle reading. The characters are complex and compelling; the dynamics between Hetty-Byatt and Hetty-Reese and Hetty-Byatt-Reese are fascinating, and there’s a really lovely f/f romance in here to boot. The atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and the adults make for great villains (or antiheroes, again depending on your POV). The writing is a thing of beauty, and the subversive feminist elements really make the story shimmer and sparkle (and assail you with painful insights). This is a memorable piece of feminist horror with a dystopian twist, and I can’t wait to see what Power does next.

Honestly, the only downside (and reason for the four-star rating) is the ending, which leaves things a little open-ended for me. Then again, wrapping things up with a shiny red bow would have felt cheap and dishonest, so there’s that.

I won’t say more for fear of spoiling things (it’s really best to go in cold I think), but the hype is real. Badass ladies (and male allies), you want to read this book.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)