Book: “Wilder Girls” by Rory Power
Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: 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.
Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
Oh boy, look what we have here. Another boarding school book! And on top of a boarding school book, we got some plague horror, some vague cosmic horror, and some queer representation thrown in for good measure. Suffice to say, when I read about “Wilder Girls”, I was interested enough to request an eARC from NetGalley.
What makes “Wilder Girls” by Rory Powers a bit different from other plague horror that I’ve seen lately is that we don’t know WHAT the Tox is. The students at Raxter School for Girls just know that they have been stricken with this disease, which causes body disfigurement, severe aggression, and in many cases (such as that of most of the faculty members and huge portion of the student body) death. They are cut off from the outside world immediately, and those who do have the tenuous connection to the outside world that sends supplies their way aren’t saying much. In many plague horror stories we will ultimately get at least some information as to what happened, be it a government made virus run amok a la “The Stand” or a supermutated flu a la “Station Eleven”. But in “Wilder Girls” it is largely unknown, and that fear of the unknown (both in origin of The Tox and what it has done to the woods outside the school) is what takes this towards Cosmic Horror territory, and makes it feel a bit more unique than similar tales that I’ve read. And, hooray but also YIKES, along with cosmic horror comes body horror, and “Wilder Girls” has that AND THEN SOME. From descriptions of mutated wildlife to body mutilation to other moments of supreme yuck, Powers knows how to up the gross factor in ways that would make David Cronenberg proud.
Plus, when you combine plague and the unknown you have a volatile situation in terms of how the social structures have changed, and Raxter School for Girls has DEFINITELY degraded as they try to wait for their rescue, even as supplies dwindle more and more and desperation starts to cloud the judgments and actions of those who are supposed to be friends. Powers doesn’t shy away from some really brutal moments that are set off by these moments of desperation, be it those in power abusing those below, or those who are friendly towards each other suddenly attacking each other verbally AND physically. There are connections to the outside world, sure, but it becomes clearer and clearer that the outside world, in whatever state it may be in, is forgetting about these girls, and it may be intentional.
I also really enjoyed the slow growing and complicated relationship between Hetty, our main protagonist, and Reese, a sometimes friend but mostly roommate to Hetty and their friend Byatt. Byatt is the main connector between the three girls, as both Hetty and Reese have their affections for her. But when Byatt disappears, the two girls left, who have had rocky at best interactions as of late, have to learn to trust each other, and also deal with how they may actually feel for each other. The romance isn’t really at the forefront of this story, and it doesn’t end up defining either character, but it is always a bit below the surface, and I found it realistic that these two girls in a horrifying situation would have a lot of complex feelings towards each other. Especially when they had been vying for the attention of the bright and friendly Byatt.
But for me, and for reasons I can’t really figure out, the broader plot of “Wilder Girls” really didn’t interest me as much as I had hoped it would. While the parts about The Tox and the dwindling hope of rescue were absolutely right up my alley, for the life of me I couldn’t bring myself to care about Byatt’s disappearance. Sure, I usually like the conspiratorial themes that this book was filled with (why did Byatt disappear? Who knows more than they’re telling?), but I think that I was more interested in The Tox itself. Since we jumped in AFTER the Tox has already ravaged this school and it’s inhabitants, and since the school has adjusted, albeit poorly as it turns out, I wish we had a little more information about the build up and fall out of that initial infection. To me that seemed like a better story than that of a missing friend. That said, I can understand why the emphasis on that might be more interesting to other people. As it was, I wasn’t into it. On top of that, we got a clunker of an ending that felt like it was trying too hard to tread between ‘we definitely could end this story here if we needed to’, and ‘promises of more secrets and perhaps a sequel is the only thing to be done’. It felt too obvious as to what it was trying to do.
“Wilder Girls” was a bit of a disappointment to me, but that doesn’t mean it will be disappointing to all fans of plague and cosmic horror. If you want more focus on The Tox, it may not give you what you need, but if you are fine dealing with the fallout alone, it could be a good fit.
Rating 6: While it had a good premise and some interesting female characters, I didn’t find myself as invested in “Wilder Girls” as I had hoped I would be.
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