In Wicked Like a Wildfire (2017), magic and secrecy swirl around Iris and Malina, a pair of seventeen year old fraternal twins who live in current-day Montenegro with their single mother, Jasmina. Jasmina confides to them that all of the women in their family have a distinct gleam, a magical way to create and enhance beauty. Jasmina bakes marvelous foods that call particular visual scenes to the minds of those who eat them. Malina can sense moods and reflect them back with an amazing voice that creates layers of harmony. And Iris can make flowers (and sometimes other objects) expand and fractal into spiral blazes and fireworks of color.
Their joyful, though private, practicing of their magic together comes to an abrupt end when the twins are seven and a neighbor nearly discovers their secret. Jasmina, panicked at the thought of discovery and the danger that would result, forbids any more exercise of their magical powers. In the ten years since, Iris’s powers have faded and her relationship with her mother has been poisoned. Iris, who narrates the story, has been hardened by years of bitter fights with her mother; their fights now are about Iris’s “slutty” wardrobe and her sneaking out at night and habitual drunkenness.
Just when Iris and her mother seem to be coming to a point where they can communicate again, something terrible happens. As Iris and Malina try to figure out what has happened to their mother and what they can do about it, strange and mystical events lead them to a place and people they’d never imagined … and that may pull the sisters apart forever.
Wicked Like a Wildfire is a YA fantasy that I suspect will hugely appeal to some readers but leave others cold. It has lush writing with vivid imagery. Popović frequently segues into lavishly detailed descriptions of food, clothing, or magical displays.
Some days she baked doe’s back cake, a roulade of airy hazelnut dough and chocolate ganache dusted with ground hazelnuts, yet there was always an element of surprise ― a sprig of mint that should have soured the cake, but that instead put you in mind of a glen in the woods. And with the next bite, a speck of wild strawberry, the kind that grew alongside forest trails, until you felt you walked them yourself with the liquid gleam of a fawn’s eyes fixed on you from the brush.
Mama’s desserts were nothing if not suspenseful.
It’s lovely, but the pace often lags, perhaps partly as a result of this attention to detail.
I also enjoyed the unique Montenegro setting, and the unexpected element of the twins’ half-Japanese heritage. The plot has some intriguing twists and variations that I won’t disclose, but some of it felt like a variation on standard YA fantasy tropes, with the Chosen One, the two hot guys as love interests (though, to Popović’s credit, it avoids coalescing into a love triangle, at least so far), a queer romance subplot, and a life-and death competition coming into play.
Perhaps most damaging to my enjoyment of the novel, though, was its setting up of Iris as a “bad girl” protagonist. Iris has inner strength, but isn’t averse to casual sex, and wastes much of her energy in hard partying and profitless, vicious arguments with her mother, at least in the first part of the novel. I wasn’t able to truly like or sympathize with her, but other readers might enjoy her personality much more than I did. Wicked Like a Wildfire also lost points with me for its major cliffhanger ending, a lamentable practice in series.
So in the end I’m on the fence about whether to continue with this duology. But Wicked Like a Wildfire is worth checking out if you like edgy YA heroines, unique settings and extravagant imagery. The sequel, Fierce Like a Firestorm, is due for publication in summer 2018, and appears likely to continue the story from Malina’s point of view.