Tala Warnock is stuck. She can’t wait to get out of the small, conservative, magic-immune town in Arizona where she grew up. Out beyond the city limits is a world just begging to be explored. It’s been over a decade since the kingdoms of Avalon and Beira nearly destroyed each other during a toxic war that erased Wonderland off the map. Beira sealed its borders and Avalon was encased in ice. Today, the Royal States of America pays top dollar for dangerous spelltech as authoritarianism ramps up. The only things that make life manageable for Tala are her many nearby relatives, her supportive parents, and her best friend Alex, a somewhat closeted gay boy who also happens to be the exiled heir to the throne of the lost kingdom of Avalon. Like him, Tala has a secret: She has the ability to neutralize other people’s magic.
Her parents, a Scottish immigrant and a pre-contact mythological being from the Philippines known as Maria Makiling, are teaching her how to control and use her powers for defense and offense. But before she can complete her training, her hometown is invaded, first by ICE agents looking to illegally imprison anyone with magic regardless of citizenship, and then by operatives of the wicked Snow Queen of Beira. Joined by a powerful magical creature and a gang of magically-inclined teenage warriors, Tala and Alex head out on a quest to save Avalon and defeat the Snow Queen once and for all.
Every now and again someone gets on social media and complains about parents never being around in young adult fiction. Next time the hot take machine takes on absent parenting I’m going to drop this book in their mentions. Not only are Tala’s parents around but so are many of her older relatives. Wicked As You Wish revels in being intergenerational. Chupeco refrains from stereotyping the seniors as frail and doddering and ensures Tala’s parents have full lives independent of their daughter. The parents of the other teens are not directly involved in the first book, but they clearly support their progeny and trust them to work together and get the job done.
Chupeco also hits several important contemporary themes. Throughout the story, she tackles questions of privilege, personal responsibility, immigration and xenophobia, how violence begets violence, colonialism, and exploitation of resources and labor. She deftly weaves in these themes and makes it clear where she stands, but leaves room for teen readers to come to the same conclusion without feeling forced or led. I found her deployment of ICE agents particularly meaningful. In the book, ICE focuses on Avalonian immigrants and people with magic, and makes little distinction between those who are immigrants and those who are citizens. They have just as much unsupervised power in the book as they do in the real world. When they come after Tala and her family, Chupeco shows how it makes no difference that Tala is an American-born citizen while her family are documented and undocumented immigrants.
On the downside, Tala and Alex just didn’t do it for me. They are, as far as the description on the back of the book is concerned, the main characters, but although restoring Alex to his rightful throne forms the bulk of the story, he disappears for big chunks of it. Tala, meanwhile, spends most of her time being annoyed at other people because they chose to not tell her something she had no right to know anyway or asking questions that require extensive lessons in Avalonian history to answer.
Speaking of which, there’s a fine line between worldbuilding and infodumping, and Wicked As You Wish regularly crosses it. I love learning about the history and culture of fantasy worlds, but it is frustrating when seemingly every other conversation detours into a long-winded lecture. Much of what Rin Chupeco reveals is interesting in a general sense. It’s clear she spent a long time thinking about the minutiae of the world and the larger social and cultural contexts that come into play. Trouble is there’s SO MUCH background, it often appears in the middle of something else more exciting and then takes up so much airtime that it throws off the pacing. Again, this information is interesting, but much of it is unnecessary to understand the plot, or at least not for this specific plot; it often feels like she is setting up not just the first novel but the entire series all at once.
Fortunately everything around the dense worldbuilding is appealing. The (huge and ever-increasing) cast is full of fascinating characters, many of whom we rarely get to see in young adult fiction. Tala is Filipina and many of her mother’s Filipino family and cultural traditions make appearances in nuanced ways. There is a decent range of diverse identities represented, and it’s refreshing to finally get an ownvoices Filipina main character. Chupeco cleverly incorporates fairy tale and folklore references, using well-known stories to expand the world and bring new meaning to their stories.
Wicked As You Wish is very much a Your Mileage May Vary book. You’re either going to either love it or be bored by it. There is a lot happening on and off the page, sometimes too much and sometimes not quite enough. If Rin Chupeco’s brand of humor, the numerous characters of varying degrees of dimensionality, and the sprawling worldbuilding don’t work for you, then you’ll have a hard time getting into the book. If you do dig it, then you’ve probably found your new favorite series. Either way, it’s hard not to appreciate the tight action, intriguing characters, and the thrill of seeing so many recognizable legends from fairy tales and folklore used in unexpected ways.
Wicked As You Wish is available from Sourcebooks.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.