The Book’s Basics
Title: The Will and The Wilds
Author: Charlie N. Holmberg
Series or Stand-Alone: Stand-Alone
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Length: 259 Pages
Initial Reaction: I enjoyed this book.
Enna lives near the Wildwood with her father. She has a simple, small town life of tending and selling mushrooms, but dreams of being a scholar. Her father gave her a bracelet that warns her when mystings are nearby by getting cold and telling her what kind of mystings they are.
Mystings are beings from The Deep, another dimension. They’re magical beings of a vast variety of species that dip into the human world and can be very dangerous.
When Enna gets attacked and marked by a mysting, she tries to get help from a rooter, a type of friendly mysting. Instead she summons a Narval, a trickster mysting, named Maekallus and makes a deal with him. It’s important to note that Narvlas consume human souls through a willing kiss. Things get a bit complicated when Maekallus gets trapped in the human world and starts to die, and the only way he can stay alive is with a kiss until he can get back to The Deep. This causes an issue because Enna would very much rather keep her soul, but she feels responsible for his predicament.
Enna decides to give him kisses and fragments of her soul to keep him alive. As he consumes more of Enna’s soul, he gains more of his humanity, but Enna loses more of herself. They have to work quickly to free him so he can go back to The Deep and to find a way for Maekallus to give her back her soul before she becomes a husk.
There’s also the threat of a mysting invasion led by a tyrannical and powerful mysting who nearly started a war 20 years previously, of course.
This book explores themes of trust, love, sacrifice, and what it means to have a soul.
What is a soul if not an extension of the heart?
Holmberg, Charlie N.. The Will and the Wilds (p. 35). Kindle Edition.
Who would I recommend this book to?
This was an easy read. It is Young Adult (YA), so more geared towards younger readers, but I think adults can get enjoyment out of it, as well (as I did).
I am a big fan of Charlie N Holmberg, having first been introduced to her writing through The Paper Magician series. I do appreciate this being a stand-alone, as it can be nice to not have to be invested in multiple worlds at once and to have a story completed in one book.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes light fantasy stories. It has the feel of a fairytale as opposed to being deeply entrenched in capital “F” Fantasy. I think this is due to it being primarily set in the human world, with only references and a brief visit to The Deep.
For the first chapter or so, I found the language a bit awkward, in that it felt forced in some places to give it a feeling of antiquity. I didn’t really notice it after the first chapter or two, whether that was because the language was less forced or the story was good enough that it distracted me, I’m not entirely sure. If the forced language puts you off at the beginning, I recommend persevering because the story itself is good.
There were a lot of clever literary devices Holmberg uses, such as her use of point of view. Maekallus and Enna both have different points of view for their chapters, which helps to make Enna feel more relatable than Maekallus.
I love this kind of story, where there is a human village and just through the forest is another world with completely different people (Fae, Elves, mystings, etc) where the protagonist can go, or from where the other beings can come to the human world from. It’s reminiscent of “Here Be Dragons,” of the unknown and of wonder.
The Will and the Wilds plays on the idea of another world being on the edge of the trees, or within the woods; of the protagonist being on the cusp between the human world and the world of magic, physically and socially. This book reminds me of Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, VE Schwab’s The Vine Witch, and Hope Mirrless’s Lud-In-The-Mist, which use this trope but in different ways. There are probably other books that do this as well, but them being similar in this way doesn’t detract from any of these stories.
In “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defends elements of stories being used in different books, saying
“[i]t is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.”
I do think this is a little bit to defend his use of elements from Beowulf in The Hobbit, but The Hobbit doesn’t have any less value as a story because of it. Plagiarism is bad, obviously, but there are themes and tropes that exist in any genre and the use of them doesn’t over-saturate the sea of books. Instead, these books contribute to a wealth of stories that can play against each other, even while they stand alone in their own right.
It’s a general gripe of mine in fantasy literature, which does not only apply to this book, that women still have sexist restrictions imposed upon them even though the setting is in a fictional world. I love that Enna is a scholar, that she pursues this dream even though her world does not accept female academics. I understand that the setting is influenced by small-town pre-industrial life, and that our traditionally sexist past can help to build the setting, but surely a world that has magical creatures and portals between dimensions can have gender equality without sacrificing the ambiance of antiquity? Holmberg hints at Enna potentially being able to enter academia, but only through the mercy of a man who takes an interest in the knowledge that she has of mystings.
This didn’t take away from the book too much for me as it is common in a lot of fantasy literature, including other books I have thoroughly enjoyed, it was just something that struck a nerve. SFF has a unique ability to look forward, even when taking inspiration from the past. I would love for more stories to be inclusive and forward-thinking on other topics.
There are books in SFF where gender equality is an ingrained part of a story or is inherently equal. Some bring attention to it, and some don’t but still have an equal world. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells and This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, are a couple of examples that come to mind. Stories that show a fight for equality are also good, but for this one Enna just feels a bit trapped in her conscripted gender norms with only a hint of a way out, even by the end. I don’t want to include spoilers so I won’t go into too much detail, but her main wish of entering academia is overshadowed when she seems more than happy to settle with a more traditional goal.
Regardless, I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a cute, easy read.