August is a misfit with a pyro streak and Jack is a golden boy on the varsity rugby team - but their intense friendship goes way back. It's something they keep for themselves, and they rely on each other for survival. When Jack begins to see increasingly vivid hallucinations, August decides to help Jack the only way he knows how - by believing him, and believing in the fantasy kingdom that creeps into the edges of the real world.
Guys, I have been in one heck of a reading slump. Like, seriously. Apart from maybe a couple of audiobooks, I haven't read anything in about two months. I guess with Christmas and COVID and everything else going on I just haven't been in the mood to read. It probably also didn't help that I just bought a Disney+ membership and have devoted pretty much all of my time to one Baby Yoda. (BUT COME ON, LOOK HOW CUTE HE IS! 😭)
Anyway, I was determined to get out of my reading slump and I remembered a few months ago I'd purchased a copy of The Wicker King after seeing it doing the rounds on Bookstagram. I knew it was short and the multimedia elements like the police report on the first page reminded me a little of Holly Jackson's A Good Girl's Guide to Murder (which I loved) so I figured this seemed like a good book to ease me back into reading. And you know what, guys? It did the trick!
DISCLAIMER: The Wicker King touches on issues of abuse, neglect, drugs and mental illness. It would be impossible - not to mention highly irresponsible - for me not to reference these issues so please be aware that this review will contain some mild spoilers (nothing too big - I promise).
What's it about?
The Wicker King tells the story of two 17-year-old boys, August Bateman and Jack Rossi. August and Jack grew up together and are best friends despite their differing social ranks at school. While the boys lead pretty normal school lives, at home it's a different story. August's mum suffers with severe depression and spends all her time in the basement watching television. Jack's parents are never around, constantly away on business trips leaving Jack to look after himself. With no parents to care for them, August and Jack learn to depend on each other for survival, so when Jack begins to show signs of a degenerative hallucinatory disorder, it's August who tries to help him through it. Except August isn't equipped to deal with something this big and as the hallucinations worsen, he finds himself being pulled deeper into Jack's fantasy. Can he save Jack? Or will he destroy himself trying?
A Twisted Terabithia
The Wicker King is a tricky book to nail down but if I were to try to sum it up in a sentence, I'd say it's a bit like Bridge to Terabithia meets White Rabbit, Red Wolf, with the mystery of A Good Girl's Guide to Murder and the visual stylings of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. And if that doesn't make you want to buy this book immediately, I don't know what will.
The book's writing style is described as "micro-fiction" - a term I haven't come across before but one that actually fits pretty well. Each chapter (if you can call them that) are around a page in length and make up a series of vignettes or snapshots rather than one coherent linear narrative. It took me a little while to get into the story because it was so fragmented and choppy but once you get used to it, reading is a breeze. Word of warning, reading micro-fiction is a bit like eating Pringles: once you pop, you can't stop. I am the slowest reader in the world and yet somehow I managed to read this 300 page book in a single night. It really is that addictive. It's a genius move on Ancrum's part; each chapter is so heavily concentrated that you can't help but read one after another because you simply need to know what happens next. And when each chapter is only a couple paragraphs in length, it's impossible not to keep going.
Interspersed between these narrative snapshots are multimedia elements that expand on the story or complement it in some way. If you've read Holly Jackson's A Good Girl's Guide to Murder, it's a bit like that. There are case files, police reports, psychologist examinations, detention slips - even a recipe for red velvet cupcakes! - and bit by bit, these tidbits of information slowly come together to construct one overarching narrative, allowing the reader to understand the events that led to the arson that takes place in the opening chapter.
I'm a big fan of experimental fiction - anything that plays with the physical form of the book and takes steps to disrupt reading norms gets an automatic thumbs-up from me. When I studied children's literature at university one of the things I found fascinating was picture books and the way text and image can work together or in opposition to each other to create or confound meaning. Reading doesn't just have to be textual and I find it strange that the publishing industry hasn't really picked up on this when it comes to YA. Sure there are graphic novel adaptations, but I'm thinking about more hybrid forms of storytelling. For example, one of the things I found really clever about The Wicker King is the way the edges of the pages darken as the book goes on, reflecting the deteriorating mental state of August. The pages look like they're covered in soot (August is a bit of a pyromaniac) and in the margins are dark scribbles and etchings that correspond to the symbols that Jack sees in his hallucinations. This is really effective because it means the book is no longer just a book - it's an artefact. The physical thing we're holding in our hands while we read - that's something that August has held in his own ash-smeared hands. It's filled with his photographs, his handwriting, his drawings. In other words, the book becomes a conduit that transports the reader into the world of the novel, collapsing the boundaries between real and fantasy. And it's that blurring of the line between what's real and what's not - that layering of worlds - that's at the very heart of this Terabithia-esque story. The Wicker King is a prime example of how writers (and publishers) can play with the physicality of the book to tell a story, and proves just how compelling such stories can be when they're done right.
I guess if I had one criticism, it's that I wish Ancrum had gone further with the multimedia elements. One of the things I enjoyed most about A Good Girl's Guide to Murder was piecing together the case alongside Pippa by poring over the various emails, text messages and case files. But with The Wicker King, a lot of the multimedia stuff is more surface level; there are very few clues to be found in the drawings, notes and diagrams - they basically just reiterate what we're already told in the text. Don't get me wrong, they still enhance the story and create a more immersive storytelling experience, it's just that I think Ancrum could have taken it a little further. That being said, I tried reading Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff a few years ago and found the multimedia elements of that novel too much; information was everywhere and it was really overwhelming trying to take it all in. So I guess it's just about striking a balance. Or hey, maybe I'm just an incredibly picky reader.
"Would you burn for me?"
What makes The Wicker King so compelling is the relationship between August and Jack. Some people on Goodreads have accused Ancrum of queer-baiting with this book but I'd have to disagree. According to Ancrum, Jack is bisexual and August is questioning. Admittedly, Jack's bisexuality was a little ambiguous, but with August, his questioning sexuality was pretty clear.
I can understand the claims of queer-baiting as the whole book seems to skirt around the subject of whether these boys are actually in a relationship. And honestly, it had me pretty confused too. One minute Jack's trying to set August up with a girl he met, the next minute they're touching each other affectionately in the woods on their own. Was I reading too much into it? Had I become so blinded by queer YA romance that I now view every male interaction in a homoerotic light?! I genuinely had no idea whether these boys were friends or something more and as the novel progressed and their emotions intensified I found myself getting more confused - not less. Take this scene, for instance, where August gives Jack a tattoo:
"Jack's pale skin was so warm, his heartbeat beneath his ribs like a bird fluttering in a cage. He shivered after the first prick.
He flinched. August hadn't understood the weight of this closeness when he was getting his own tattoo done. He had been too busy shouting.
'August,' Jack whispered. He lay very still with an indescribable look on his face, his eyes gently pressed shut.
August didn't answer him, getting into the rhythm of the work. He brushed the ink and blood away, leaning closer. He would never forget the way this felt.
They were breathing in tandem now.
He wiped and pricked and wiped and pricked until the very last. Then, without thinking at all, he bowed his head against Jack's side and closed his eyes. Jack pushed his fingers through August's thick hair and gripped hard."
I mean, damn. You can cut the sexual tension with a knife 👀. But in all seriousness, I think those who are focused on whether the relationship is queer-baiting or not are missing the point. It's not about whether August and Jack are gay for each other, it's about the unhealthy foundations their relationship is built on. Because let's be clear here: this friendship is toxic af. Without getting into major spoilers, something happened to these boys when they were kids that created not only a huge bond between them, but an intense power imbalance that left August feeling like he'd be forever indebted to Jack. And it's clear that he still carries that with him all these years later. As August explains:
"I like following him. Following orders. Doing whatever he wants. It feels good. It feels so fucking good ... I know what to do with myself when he tells me what to do. He's my king."
It's unclear whether Jack genuinely enjoys dominating August or whether he just goes along with this "game" because it makes August feel good, but clearly this is a pretty toxic relationship. And it's the abuse element of the story that makes The Wicker King so tricky to review. My issue is that the abuse is never properly acknowledged by the characters and as a result, it isn't resolved by the end of the book. There's a strong argument to be made that The Wicker King glamorises abusive relationships and toxic friendships. But at the same time, it's important to remember that the novel is told from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator whose own mental illness means he perceives his abusive relationship in a romanticised way. There's a huge demand for sex-positive / healthy kink representation in books for older teens so a part of me is glad to see a book pushing the boundaries and showing diverse characters in untraditional relationships (it's worth noting that in Ancrum's new novel, The Weight of the Stars, several of the characters from The Wicker King are revisited years later and are depicted in a closed poly relationship). But at the same time, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the kink / power-play aspect of August and Jack's relationship is rooted in trauma and enacted by characters who struggle with their mental health and are, let's face it, incapable of entering into this arrangement rationally and with mutual consent.
I suppose the issue I have is whether teen readers will be able to recognise just how unhealthy the relationship between August and Jack is when the story is being told through the eyes of August. In the author note at the end of the book, Ancrum acknowledges that the boys' relationship / friendship was, indeed, pretty destructive, but makes the claim that they are not to blame for their behaviour:
"Jack and August are both victims of neglect. They are neglected by their parents and ignored by all figures of authority around them until it is entirely too late [...] The only people who were not in some way at fault were all the young people in this story, who were doing the best they could with the situation they were given."
Ancrum makes an important point here. Jack and August, despite being enablers in a pretty toxic, co-dependent relationship, are still victims. It's the adults around them who are at fault, and the destructive aspects of the boys' personalities and relationship "are only the symptoms of this larger and more pressing issue" of neglect. But while I agree with the point Ancrum makes, it still leaves a sour taste knowing that their abusive behaviour goes unchecked. I think it's also important to acknowledge the problematic way August treats women, and the Gordie and Rina (his female love interests) are depicted in the book. August is happy to have casual sex with Gordie, but when she wants something more serious, he breaks things off. Gordie is understandably upset, but it's this comment that I found quite telling:
"You're so choked up with your own hypocritical bullshit that you can't even admit that you never liked me, or really wanted me at all [...] And you know the best thing about it? I've always known you were like that and I loved you in spite of it. I thought, 'Maybe I could give him what he needs, even if I'm not the one he truly wants,'..."
I mean, poor Gordie. She wanted a relationship with August even though she knew he didn't want her. And when he ends things with Gordie, he begins having casual sex with Rina, who after their first sexual encounter comments:
"Sometimes ... I get a craving for something. Something expensive or hard to find, like truffles. If I can't get them, I try for the next best thing. M&M'S, Snickers. Whatever. But no matter how much I have, it doesn't quite hit the spot..." She gazed over at him. "I don't mind being that for you."
So here we have two women who are happy to have sex or enter into a relationship with August, despite knowing that he's not really interested in either of them. And that just doesn't sit right with me. It's clear that both Gordie and Rina know August is in love with Jack, even if he's not able to articulate those feelings himself, and it seems like they're okay sacrificing themselves in order to protect him until he's ready to work through those feelings and accept his sexuality. I mean, look, we all want friends who can support us as queer allies, but this is just too much. And like the abuse August faces at the hands of Jack, this is never properly acknowledged or resolved by the end of the book. I don't know, I just feel like this book is full of bad messages and I'm not convinced that all teen readers will pick up on all of the problematic aspects of the story - even with the author's note at the end. Hell, even my understanding of this book has changed in the process of writing this review.
And I guess that's the point. Despite its brevity, The Wicker King is an incredibly nuanced story that demands an emotionally mature reader in order to be properly understood. And if the book is so complex that its readership may not fully comprehend its message, is that a failing of the book or a failing of the reader? I don't think there's an easy answer to that question and in a way, I think this is one of the things that's made The Wicker King such a compelling read. This is easily the most thought-provoking book I've read in a long time and I'm sure that in the weeks to come my opinion will continue to shift.
"Water dripped off the branch and glittered in the setting sun, and August gazed up at the Wicker King. So fierce and proud, chin jutting out so bravely, that August couldn't help but lift his branch beside him. Jack had grinned at the sight. They were stronger together; they were always stronger together."
The Wicker King is a problematic book, but it is intentionally so. If we measure a book's success by its ability to make you think and feel, then this book is off the scale. It's easily one of the most addictive stories I've ever read and the micro-fiction style and multimedia elements were truly captivating. That being said, this is also a book that will make many readers feel uncomfortable and I know that its narrative will be polarising. I wouldn't advise this book for sensitive readers or young teens, but for older readers who love psychological mysteries with unreliable narrators like Tom Pollock's White Rabbit, Red Wolf, The Wicker King definitely needs to be bumped up to the top of your TBR.
Have you read The Wicker King? What did you think of it? Do you have any similar recommendations? Let me know in the comments or drop me a message on Instagram @liam_reads.