In this darkly imaginative debut novel full of myth, magic, romance, and mystery, a Princeton freshman is drawn into a love triangle with two enigmatic brothers, and discovers terrifying secrets about her family and herself—a bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches.
Arriving at Princeton for her freshman year, Thea Slavin finds herself alone, a stranger in a strange land. Away from her family and her Eastern European homeland for the first time, she struggles to adapt to unfamiliar American ways and the challenges of college life—including an enigmatic young man whose brooding good looks and murky past intrigue her. Drawn to the elusive Rhys and his equally handsome and mysterious brother, Jake, she ventures into a sensual mythic underworld as irresistible as it is dangerous.
In this shadow world that seems to mimic Greek mythology and the Bulgarian legends of the samodivi or “wildalones”—forest witches who beguile and entrap men—Thea will discover a family secret bound to transform her forever . . . if she can accept that dead doesn’t always mean gone, and love doesn’t always distinguish between the two.
Mesmerizing and addictive, Wildalone is a thrilling blend of the modern and the fantastic. Krassi Zourkova creates an atmospheric world filled with rich characters as compelling as those of Diana Gabaldon, Deborah Harkness, and Stephenie Meyer.
This was not how I wanted to start 2015.
Wildalone is a fantasy that I honestly wish hadn’t gone fantasy. It’s a book that doesn’t go full on fantasy until over three-quarters of the way through, and when it does, it does so via exposition dump. To call it inelegant is an understatement.
And honestly, I’m so disappointed that it turned out this way. The set-up – a tale of a Bulgarian arriving in the US to go to college to study piano – is semi-autobiographical and she does a wonderful job of setting up this wonderful gothic atmosphere as Thea starts looking into what happened to a sister whose existence she only learned of less than a year before she went to college. There’s a wonderful sense of dread and I think had it been a story of mental image and imagination run dangerously wild, it could have made for a great tragedy or maybe even a great horror. As it was, we get…this.
And this being a hella creepy pseudo-triangle between our heroine and the brothers Rhys and Jake. So much of the story revolves around them and it’s to the story’s detriment. Rhys is stalker material. Much like Christian Gray, Thea’s RA is like “dude, he’s kind of stalking you” and she ignores it. He makes it 100% clear that he “won’t share her” and yet won’t commit to Thea in return. So when Thea inevitably dares to go on a date with another guy, he goes all “I thought I told you I won’t share you” and punches a wall.
And she forgives him.
Their whole relationship is filled with them talking, him getting angry, her forgiving him. Lather, rinse and repeat. We even have the Fifty Shades of Gray classic of her going out of town and him showing up on the doorstop of where she’s staying to talk to her.
Jake isn’t much better. Being the second brother, he’s woefully underdeveloped, seemingly only in place to try and hook her up with his brother, even though he clearly loves her too. He had little personality beyond that. I suppose uninteresting is better than would-be-stalker with anger issues, but not by much. And yes, I know there’s a plot-based reason for Rhys being an asshole, but again, like Christian Gray, it doesn’t excuse his behavior.
The whole Rhys-Thea-Jake aspect never gets really resolved, and I can’t even discuss the fourth part of the equation without spoiling it, but let’s just say the end of the book just feels kinda creepy.
As for the fantasy, it revolves around the cult of Dionysus. The mythology is interesting, but again, it becomes into play far too late. Leaving it in the realm of myth and having a tale of humans trying to tap into the magic (and failing) could have been so much more interesting.
Ultimately, we’re left with a well-crafted tale about a kind of creepy love-triangle between our heroine and the brothers. If that triangle doesn’t work for you, the book isn’t going to work for you. It’s disappointing, because the book held so much promise.
So what to rate it? There are some good points to the story, but ultimately I was left with a feeling of unease. The technical merits aren’t enough to overcome the serious shortcomings of the lack of poorly handled fantasy or the love triangle that isn’t romantic, no matter how much the author tries to convince us it is because of darking and brooding protagonist.
I wanted to like this book, but the deeper I got in, the more uneasy I felt and ultimately I just can’t recommend a book that leaves me feeling that way.
Verdict: a reluctant Skip It
Available: January 6