Royal Romance and Equal Partnership: Dana Swift’s Wickery Series

The Wickery series by Dana Swift is what would happen if you mixed the underworld and court intricacies of Throne of Glass, the jailbreaks and mastermind plans of Six of Crows, and added a good amount of beloved romance tropes to the blend.

There are currently two books in the series. The first, Cast in Firelight came out in January 2021 and Bound by Firelight followed in 2022. In the author’s own words, the books “combine the character-driven fun of a rom-com with the tension of a fast-paced adventure fantasy.”

The continent of Wickery, that gives the series its name, is divided into various kingdoms apparently at peace with one another. Our protagonists, Adraa and Jatin are the respective heirs of two regimes, Belwar and Naupure. Betrothed since a young age, the two haven’t seen each other in a decade, although they’ve kept in touch via letter, sparking an endless competition where they constantly try to outdo the other. Adraa is determined to hate her fiancé but, in a triumph of dramatic irony, their reunion occurs by pure chance when they are both pretending to be other people. This leads to an inevitable yet endearing misunderstanding that spans nearly the entirety of the first book.

They bond under the safety of their fake identities, relieved of the pressure of their respective titles and their responsibility to each other. Ironically, by both lying about who they are, they get a chance to truly get to know each other, without the pretense of competition they’ve kept in their correspondence.

Through classic tropes like rivals-to-lovers, and with a dual first-person point of view, we watch the story unfold through the eyes of both main characters. Adraa has been training to lead her people for years. As a royal princess, she is also expected to master all nine colors of magic, even though she is blessed by the fire goddess. Adraa provides her people with warmth and power thanks to her invention—firelight—in an epitome of servitude, almost like a mythological fisher king whose power is linked to the prosperity of his people. Firelight acts as an equalizer and brings some much-needed stability to the lower-class citizens in a society where cast [sic] differences are immensely stark.

Obviously, there are criminals on the black market who are hoarding and profiting off her firelight, but Adraa’s love for her people knows no bounds. To uncover these plots, she has crafted a fake identity as an underground cage caster and cultivated a legend around this glorious underworld figure that will delight fans of Celaena Sardothien.

If her story is primarily about social justice and overcoming her own fears, Jatin’s chapters complement hers by offering what is essentially an endearing romance novel. He too gets involved in the underworld and becomes an unsung hero of the people, but only because he is fascinated by Jaya Smoke, Adraa’s vigilante alter ego; then proceeds to fall for her and agonize over it, torn between Jaya’s passion for their now shared cause and his loyalty to Adraa herself.

The world-building is deliciously complex, especially when it comes to the refreshing magic system; magic is elemental, with each power linked to a deity and a color. Only half the population of Wickery is magically gifted; each Touched has one forte and the potential to wield various elements, while the Untouched suffer prejudice, inequality and injustice. The most powerful witches and wizards can wield all nine elements, and this provides the conflict for Adraa’s insecurity: she is edging dangerously close to her initiation ceremony and she still hasn’t mastered ice magic, which is coincidentally Jatin’s forte. She could train more, but her crusade to protect her people, fight inequality and neutralize criminal threats takes priority and ultimately culminates in her own demise.

Between the end of Cast in Firelight and the beginning of Bound by Firelight, Adraa loses her freedom and the trust of her people. Eventually she loses her voice. The two books flow seamlessly into each other, and the transition is barely palpable if reading the books back-to-back. In an exclusive interview I conducted for Tor.com, Swift revealed that a few scenes were actually moved from one book to the other, “so the cross between where one book stops and the other begins was a fluid one.” One difference, though, is that the second book is unquestionably darker and more heavily plotted, with more twists and turns, delving deeper in the corruption and the political intrigues, as well as the nature of magic and its limits. The stakes are higher and our heroes are faced with much harder choices, forced to adapt to impossible situations; they must submit some of their innocence and sacrifice it to the pain inflicted on them.

Bound by Firelight introduces more complex themes like guilt and grief, and new scene-stealing morally gray characters that leave us wondering about their allegiances until the end. It also features disability more prominently through two characters that are bound to be absolute fan favorites. Honestly, I would gladly take 200 more pages if we could delve deeper in the backstories and psyches of all side characters.

I admit that given the light tone of the debut, I expected the second novel to open with a Adraa and Jatin’s wedding or to find them already established in domesticity after a time jump, but Swift did not give in to genre expectations or fanservice and kept her readers on their toes for a reunion, a kiss, a much-awaited proposal. The sweet romance between the main characters, though less prominent in book two, is always at the heart of the story. Adraa and Jatin are evenly-matched and in perfect opposition, as one could glance from the hues of ice and fire surrounding them in the book’s covers designed by the brilliant Charlie Bowater.

Adraa is headstrong but not without insecurities, like any teenage girl has the right to be, “complex and inspiring” in the words of the author, and Jatin was created as “her equal, embodying qualities and struggles that are relatable, but not toxic” even for a smug teenage boy who is used to succeeding. Swift revealed that she really wanted to write a romantic relationship to be based on “equality and partnership, where they spend the book not only falling for one another, but understanding one another.” And she certainly did.

Wickery’s setting is easily recognizable as Indian-coded and it was heavily inspired by South Asian customs. Swift has written extensively in her author’s notes about how grateful she is to her husband’s family for welcoming her so warmly into their world and for how supportive they have been of her books. The author felt the need to write this tale for her children, providing them with a “fun fantasy romance with characters that look like them.” During our interview, she confessed that the thought of her children picking up her first published book and not seeing themselves represented in it did not sit right with her.

The series is technically YA, and its fluent writing is a blissful reprieve from our world; easy to follow for teens and perfect for those transitioning from middle-grade novels into young adult, but fairly enjoyable for all. I also haven’t seen chapter titles as sassy as these since… Percy Jackson, perhaps?

As of right now, Wickery is a duology, although deliberately open-ended, as Swift has many more ideas for these beloved characters and I truly hope their story continues. In the meantime, she revealed that she’s working on a YA fantasy standalone, a loose and funny retelling of Hades and Persephone. It’s still a work in progress, but I certainly can’t wait to put my hands on it!

Federica Bocco is a writer and editor who loves reading and watching anything that has magic in it. She writes for a number of international publications and she can usually be found at @ladymultifandom on Twitter.

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