If the idea of a story set against the alluring backdrop of untamed magic and decadent glamour sounds exactly your kind of book, then you should be running to your nearest bookshop to buy a copy of Francesca May’s Wild and Wicked Things. Part Practical Magic, part The Great Gatsby, this romantic and tragic tale feels reminiscent of the kind of opulent American jazz age novels that F. Scott Fitzgerald is so famous for, whilst bringing all the dark gothic vibes you’d expect from a story steeped in potions, rituals and blood bargains.
When Annie Mason arrives on Crow Island, a seemingly idyllic summer getaway, to settle her late father’s estate, she didn’t expect to be confronted with actual witches. In a post-WWI world, where the prohibition of magic has seen people hang for showing even the slightest affinity towards witchcraft, there are still whispers that real magic lurks just below the surface of the island. Whilst out for a walk along the beach one night, Annie finds herself drawn to her glamorous neighbour, Emmeline Delacroix, whose extravagant and illicit parties are infamous. It’s at one of these parties that Annie witnesses a confrontation between her best friend, Bea, and Emmeline, which throws Annie’s safe and mundane existence into chaos.
The more she’s pulled into Emmeline’s dazzling and dangerously magical world, the more Annie begins to realise that she’s wandered into the middle of something much more complicated than she initially thought. Bea and Emmeline have made a terrible bargain and if they don’t pay what is owed, they will both suffer the consequences. With time running out for both her best friend and the woman she’s finding herself increasingly drawn to, Annie becomes complicit in a murder that – like a blood bargain – there’s no coming back from.
On Crow Island, people had whispered to me back home, real magic lurked just below the surface. Wealth seeped from the place like honey. They said it had a reputation, that here the law looked the other way.”
Wild and Wicked Things is a sapphic historical fantasy novel that drips with dark curses and witchcraft fuelled by blood and desire. It might be set on a small island off the east coast of England but there’s a distinctly American feel to both the story and the setting, more Block Island or Martha’s Vineyard, with the wealthy summer atmosphere of The Hamptons. So many gothic novels take place in winter – the cold and unforgiving weather adding to the eerie, haunting aesthetic. But here the warm, windswept days and humid, heady nights add to the sense of uncomfortable, impending threat.
Another element that works in Wild and Wicked Things’ favour is the slower pace – something that could be seen as a flaw but is very much in keeping with the indulgent, decadent feel of the novel. Like Annie, readers are drawn to Emmeline’s glittering yet damning appeal, seduced by the secrecy and glamour of her hidden magic. It’s only when Annie is reluctantly welcomed into the fold, and she’s given a closer look at what she admired from afar, that she understands the darkness and damage lurking under the surface. Emmeline is the Jay Gatsby of this story – magnetic and enigmatic and far more emotionally damaged than she allows the world to see.
As a central character, Annie is the weaker, more passive of the novel’s two perspectives. She’s bewitched by Emmeline and it’s easy to see why – Annie is fearful of magic and the attraction she feels towards other women. Whereas Emmeline is proud and confident in her own skin, making her a bolder, more vivid personality. Together though, they create a nice light and shade, Emmeline’s outward fierceness gradually rubbing off on Annie, who begins the novel as a wallflower but slowly comes into her own. Childhood trauma haunts many of the characters, as does the shadow of war, which is present in the way they still mourn the people they lost and the fear of magic it perpetuated.
Not only is Wild and Wicked Things a beautiful novel to sit on your bookshelf, it’s also a lush and evocative story that transports readers far away from reality and into a witchy world full of damning secrets, unbreakable bargains, intoxicating love and found family. Add to this a little murder cover-up and you’ve got yourself the perfect Spring/Summer read.
Wild and Wicked Things is published by Orbit on 31 March 2022