Francesca May’s Wild and Wicked Things has been described as a retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a sapphic romance and a twist of real magic. That description is accurate, though May creates a whole new book here, one that has Gatsby flourishes but veers off into its own world and own story.
In it, we follow Annie and Emmeline in a post-World War I alternate history where magic exists but is largely illegal to wield. Annie (the Nick of this tale, if you’re keeping track of the Gatsby connections) is a quiet young woman who heads to Crow Island, an isle off the coast of England, after her estranged father dies there and leaves his house and other affairs in her care. Emmeline is the Gatsby-esque character of the book—a woman in dashing suits who also happens to be a witch who throws lavish parties full of illegal, mind-altering concoctions at Cross House, the elaborate mansion where she and her friends reside.
It’s at Cross House where The Great Gatsby vibes are the strongest—the opulence, the throngs of drunken people reveling in the spectacle and high-brow illicitness of the parties will make you want to make your own cocktail to sip as you read. May captures these scenes in rich, sumptuous detail, and you can’t help but feel like you’re in the midst of the madness yourself.
Annie and Emmeline eventually cross paths at one of these parties, but we spend time with both of them immediately, as the chapters are written in first person from one of their points of view (something that admittedly can be hard to parse out sometimes, as their voices sound very much the same).
When they do meet, they have an instant connection that neither can understand. In addition to this mysterious magical bond that the two have, Emmeline and Annie find out they also have Bea in common. Bea was Annie’s friend from home who ran away and ended up on Crow Island where Emmeline befriended her and took on a great magical debt to get her married to Arthur, whether Arthur wanted to marry Bea or not.
Bea, much like Daisy in Gatsby, is an intentionally frustrating character—one who whines and moans and justifies her horrific decisions because Love. Like Daisy, Bea also takes no action on her own to fix her situation but relies on Annie and Emmeline to enable her and fix her mistakes. Those two, however, make all the wrong choices, and things get worse in a Practical Magic-like fashion, building up to a dark and stormy climax near the end.
And things do get dark (and wicked, as the book’s title suggests). But Annie and Emmeline along with Emmeline’s two friends Nathan and Isobel—richly drawn side characters that I wish played a larger part in the story—do all they can to keep everyone alive despite Annie and Emmeline’s questionable choices in their quest to help Bea.
The heart of Wild and Wicked Things, however, is Emmeline and Annie’s connection. Their bond is a compelling one, and one that goes beyond the magical McGuffin pulling them together. By finding each other, Emmeline helps Annie to break out of her shell and Annie helps Emmeline to face the trauma of her past.
The end of the story is heartbreaking in many ways, and it doesn’t tie up all the threads that May threw out there. But while there are still pieces of this world that could be further developed and explored, the core of Wild and Wicked Things—the darkly delicious burgeoning relationship between Emmeline and Annie on a magical island in the roaring 20s—makes this tale worth a read if any or all of the above are elements that interest you.
Wild and Wicked Things is published by Redhook.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.