Beautiful Premise, Hideous Writing: The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

Posted 21st March 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 1 Comment

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad
Representation: Cast of colour, queer cast
on 3rd August 2021
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Urban Fantasy

From William C. Morris Finalist Nafiza Azad comes a thrilling, feminist fantasy about a group of teenage girls endowed with special powers who must band together to save the life of the boy whose magic saved them all.

Meet the Wild Ones: girls who have been hurt, abandoned, and betrayed all their lives. It all began with Paheli, who was once betrayed by her mother and sold to a man in exchange for a favor. When Paheli escapes, she runs headlong into a boy with stars in his eyes. This boy, as battered as she is, tosses Paheli a box of stars before disappearing.

With the stars, Paheli gains access to the Between, a place of pure magic and mystery. Now, Paheli collects girls like herself and these Wild Ones use their magic to travel the world, helping the hopeless and saving others from the fates they suffered.

Then Paheli and the Wild Ones learn that the boy who gave them the stars, Taraana, is in danger. He’s on the run from powerful forces within the world of magic. But if Taraana is no longer safe and free, neither are the Wild Ones. And that…is a fate the Wild Ones refuse to accept. Ever again.

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I tend not to; I mark a book as DNF or read and then just…keep silent about it. Maybe I put a sentence or two about it in my monthly wrap-up posts, but that’s all.

But I really, really hate this book.

And I hate that I hate it. I’ve been looking forward to this book breathlessly, ever since the publishing deal was announced. It’s magical queer girls of colour!!! With stars and magic diamonds and sparkly clothes! It’s everything I could ask for! When I was approved for an arc, I ran into the study to tell my husband the good news, I was so excited and ecstatic.

Today, I can’t decide whether I want to cry or scream.

There’s nothing wrong with the premise/concept, the plot, or the characters. I didn’t finish the book, but the issues I saw dealt with were not mishandled. It’s nothing like that.

It’s just that the writing is abominably bad.

This is confusing for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this is not Azad’s debut, and that book, The Candle and the Flame, had perfectly pleasant prose. I didn’t enjoy the book, but not because it was bad; it and I just weren’t a good fit.

Whereas The Wild Ones is just…so bad.

The first 50 pages are telling, telling, telling. Nothing is shown to the reader; it’s a never-ending lecture about the Wild Ones and the Between and non-humans and all the rest of it. One loooong info-dump. The writing is blunt and choppy; there are attempts at pretty description, but it’s cringingly clunky, with sentences like this

sweet, milky treats that taste a little like heaven if the place was a flavor.

An editor should have cut the last six words of that sentence and it would have been fine. Look

sweet, milky treats that taste a little like heaven.

Done. Much better!

The book is written in first-person; unfortunately, aside from brief excerpts from ‘the book of memories’ which are titled with a character’s name, half the time it’s not at all clear whose head we’re in. Sometimes it’s Paheli, but then in the next chapter someone else seems to be talking – because they’re referring to Paheli in third-person now – but there’s nothing to tell you who the narration has switched to. Whoever they are, they speak like very young, bratty children

I glare at Valentina and pretend I have all the answers. I am really good at pretending, in case you’re wondering.

A few lines later,

“We’ll find out more about this person later. All right?” stinky Valentina says, trying to make up for putting her foot in everyone’s mouth earlier.

‘Stinky Valentina’? What are you, five??? This from a character who has supposedly lived for over 70 years?

A lack of contractions makes the dialogue clunky and strange; it’s like a constant itch in your brain, insisting that this is not how real people speak – unless it’s for effect, which is definitely not the case here. Unless the intent is to create this niggling sense of wrongness, make it all feel artificial and false? I’m not sure why someone would do that on purpose. But putting the contractions issue aside, still, the dialogue is just…it reads like an appallingly bad script. The conversation about ‘this person’ mentioned in the previous quote goes back and forth, contradicts itself, and then is dropped like it’s nothing, even though this issue should be incredibly important to these characters.

Moments that ought to be immensely powerful and poignant fall flat in a way that’s almost painful. The Wild Ones are a group of girls and women who have been hurt by men, now made functionally immortal by magic. Early in the book, there’s a scene where they come to the rescue of a mortal girl, in the process revealing to the reader one of their powers –

We take a deep breath, and then all of us scream at the same time. The men fall to their knees, their hands around their ears. The lights in the festival flicker twice before returning to their original brightness. The men do not recover. They won’t. They will hear our screams in their dreams. The sound will haunt them. They will lose sleep. Their relationships will suffer. Perhaps they will lose their jobs and livelihoods.

The irony of having screams as weapons is not lost on us. Our screams work differently on humans and middle worlders. For humans, the effect is somewhat akin to having an excess of electricity in their brains. For middle worlders, a Wild One’s scream means being injected with more magic than their bodies can safely contain. The effect is the same.

“Let’s go,” Paheli says, and we heed her.

Magic screams, coming from the mouths of wounded women, is a powerful, meaningful concept. But it’s described so…limply, here. I don’t feel anything, there’s no thrill, no urge to cheer, no awe at the beauty and power of the moment. And then we get another paragraph of telling again.

What’s extra frustrating is that, there are brief glimpses of great writing. One of the earliest excerpts from the book of memory – a book containing the backstories of the Wild Ones – is from one girl who had an affair with an older man, and in comparing herself to the man’s wife, she says

I was the sin to be confessed on Sunday to a red-cheeked priest.

She would be flowers on afternoons, jewellery just because, and dinner out with decade-long friends.

See? That’s great! That’s wonderful! Why can’t we have a whole book of that?

And the world-building is so weak. Magical creatures are just ‘not-humans’. ‘The not-human man’. ‘The not-human woman’. I mean – you couldn’t even come up with a word for them? Really?

All in all, this was a massive disappointment that has me wishing this idea had been born in the mind of a different writer, one who could do it justice.


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