Francesca May’s first fantasy novel offers her readers a decadent slice of witchcraft and blood magic in an alternate 1920s England, and is billed as a sapphic SFF retelling of The Great Gatsby. (The title, though, comes from Hemingway, in an epigram included at the end of the novel: “if she did wild and wicked things,” Hemingway writes, “it was because she could not help them,” though Hemingway’s “she” is actually the sea.) Unlike Nghi Vo’s recent The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021), which follows a bisexual and Vietnamese Jordan Baker through a fateful Long Island summer where Gatsby himself may have made a deal with Hell, Wild and Wicked Things is a looser adaptation which transposes the essence of the main characters’ relationships into the aftermath of the Great War as seen from Britain, not the USA.
This novel’s protagonist Annie Mason comes to Crow Island, a boutique tourist destination off England’s North Sea coast, to settle the affairs of her dead father, remake her life after losing her fiancé in this world’s equivalent of the Great War, and reunite with her best friend Bea, who has climbed out of the humble life they shared and married into island high society. On her first night in her new beachside cottage, the sounds of a glamorous party lure her along the shore to the neighbouring mansion, where she catches a tantalising glimpse of Emmeline Delacroix, a witch embodying the aloof androgyny of twenties style.
Emmeline lives with her chosen siblings Isobel and Nathan in the intimidating Cross House, an address with a sinister reputation even by the standards of Crow Island—a destination which attracts curious holidaymakers with rumours that it is haunted and whispers that its year-round inhabitants still practice “real” magic. Cross House was once the home of Priscilla Delacroix, known to be “the strongest witch on Crow Island” according to the journal of a mysterious diarist, a text which gives the story its prologue and becomes part of a mystery that Annie’s father has left for her to solve. In between holding her own scandalous parties, Priscilla held late-night meetings with the island’s rich councilmen, and took in isolated and vulnerable young people whom she found on the mainland to learn the secrets of her blood magic. Up to a dozen such apprentices may have passed through Priscilla’s doors, but by the time Annie comes to Crow Island, only Emmeline, Isobel, and Nathan appear to have survived.
Emmeline, we quickly learn, is the “young woman […] with no childish softness or feminine curves, only sharp edges and long limbs, dressed in a boy’s shorts and a man’s shirt rolled at the elbows” whom the diarist observes at the autumn equinox conducting a blood ritual on the moonlit shore. Emmeline is the Gatsby of the piece to Annie’s Nick Carraway, though the story of how she came by her grand house and her impressive name occupies a smaller stage than the truth behind Gatsby’s myth takes up in Fitzgerald’s novel. Annie, for her part, comes to Crow Island not as an apprentice in the business world but as a grieving daughter and not-quite-widow, released into financial independence through her father’s inheritance, leaving behind the humble terraced streets of Whitby where she and Bea grew up. The early plot beats make a nod to Gatsby’s setup in giving Annie a link to Emmeline through a close female acquaintance and her new rich husband. Where Nick’s cousin Daisy has married the brutish Tom Buchanan, Bea has married the equally unfaithful and almost as unlikeable Arthur (though Nick had known Tom at their Ivy League college, while Annie has never met Arthur before, or indeed had the opportunity to venture much outside her Whitby life). Elsewhere, an answer to the athletic Jordan Baker, the bob-haired and impetuous Joey, gives Annie her first sight of a sapphic kiss.
Annie’s and Emmeline’s houses are next to each other on the point of a bay, just as Nick’s modest home abuts Gatsby’s at West Egg, and Annie’s awed viewpoint lets the reader witness the splendour of Emmeline’s parties, in the style that readers drawn to the Gatsby aesthetic would expect the story to provide. While Gatsby lives alone, however, Emmeline shares Cross House with two characters who have no counterpart in the Gatsby plot, and her destructive connection to Bea is not a matter of romantic fascination but a spell gone wrong—freeing her up as a love interest for Annie, who begins falling for her once she becomes personally involved in the crisis that Emmeline has unwittingly caused between Arthur and Bea. For much of the story, the modality of Emmeline’s magic means that Annie, who is in love with a woman for the first time, is unable to completely trust that she is being attracted to Emmeline through her own free will, while the traumas of Emmeline’s past make her push Annie away for her own protection, prolonging the tension so that they only give into their passion once events have already started to take a deadly course.
Besides transposing into open attraction the subtextual homoerotic charge that has so often been perceived between Nick and Gatsby, May makes two other moves in framing her retelling: changing the main characters’ gender (requiring some social repositioning to account for how a woman, rather than a man, from each of their backgrounds would have achieved the necessary level of independence in the 1920s for a Gatsby plot), and moving the story across the Atlantic. The change of setting immediately removes the background of Prohibition, the US-specific context in which Gatsby achieved his sudden rise to wealth. May effectively flips the context into magical prohibition instead, positing that after this world’s equivalent of the First World War—which Britain had joined to oppose the magical enhancement of soldiers by an unnamed power—magic and witchcraft have suddenly been outlawed, though whether this is by international treaty or by way of British reaction is not clear. Annie’s mother nearly lost her chocolate-making business in the prohibition, and homeowners crop their lawns for fear they will be suspected of growing illegal weeds. Penalties for breaking the law are harsh: Annie’s widowed mother has kept warning her away from witchcraft with the example of a girl in York who was hanged for making poppets with a magical herb, though vendors on Crow Island can still trade on their town’s reputation under government licence by selling fake palmistry and charms. Islanders still surreptitiously turn to the witches of Crow Island for remedies to their problems, placing them in English magic’s long tradition of cunning folk. Illegally enchanted alcohol, known as “kazam,” is the elixir of Cross House’s social whirl.
A strength of Wild and Wicked Things is May’s skill in the early chapters’ foreshadowing, which—through its evocations of the outdoors, accessible whether the reader knows Gatsby or not—harnesses gothic conventions to show the reader that Annie is about to cross the threshold of a dangerous new world. In no more time than it takes for the breeze of a summer night to cool the cup of calming tea that Annie takes to quell her anxiety attacks, the whisper of the tide, the beat of crows’ wings, and the sounds of wild laughter have drawn her “like a moth” to the garden of Cross House, where the porch on which she spies Emmeline taking a cigarette break is marked out by a purple light. (A green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock famously lures Gatsby; here, the line of desire is rearranged.) Sometimes the house itself, where Priscilla used to blackmail the island’s powerful councilmen, takes on threatening agency: in a dream of Emmeline’s “it drank the blue swing of jazz like water, the gold and dazzle of party frocks like wine.” Where off England’s North Sea coast this island might be, precisely, is not set out, except that islanders comment on Annie’s (North) Yorkshire origins as if they are not their own; its touristic positioning suggests we are in Suffolk, though the mainland has already been left behind on the very first page.
One aspect of the book that will shape how some readers relate to it more than any other is that Priscilla’s relationship with the youths she took in, its impact on the survivors’ lives, and the mechanics of the magic they have learned, is abusive and traumatic in a way that the tone of the novel’s publicity does not fully capture. This is despite its promises of “a glittering, haunted world […] where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit blood bargains might be death.” Every act of blood magic requires cutting, and both narrators describe its effects on themselves and others: Emmeline’s voice treats it in a habituated way, while Annie’s shifts with her character arc, from her initial fear when she discovers Emmeline on the point of unconsciousness after exhausting herself in a spell, to a flirtation with both danger and hope when, to end a brutal fight, she suddenly taps her own reserves of magic and draws her own blood (the narrative prevents her completing the spell, but the language of the act is still enticing). Nathan’s history in the house, in which Priscilla used to exploit his powers and physical beauty to compromise the councilmen, uncomfortably seems to echo rumoured abuse scandals in real young people’s homes. Priscilla’s narcissistic and sadistic behaviour, which still traumatises all the Cross House characters, is frequently depicted in flashbacks. Readers in the thriller genre, in which May has written three novels as Fran Dorricott, would perhaps be more likely to expect abuse to play this strong and explicit a role in the story; readers of witchy sapphic fantasy may not necessarily expect it from their genre. It is worth stressing that how the novel handles abuse, trauma, and cutting must be by design, since May’s acknowledgements describe Wild and Wicked Things as the book of her heart, written first and foremost for herself; but marketing has hidden it too far beneath the art deco glamour with which it has been sold.
Other aspects are dissatisfying in less visceral ways. The scope and the limits of this world’s magic are not really made clear, except when characters are using a power for the first time. Emmeline can use the same blood magic as Priscilla, Isobel brews potions, Nathan has the psychic power to discern people’s secrets when they are physically close; cooks and confectioners would once infuse their food with feelings of joy until mass warfare shattered society’s innocence about magic, while witches and “heathens” used to be able to scry in mirrors or smooth stones; but the space offered to the reader to imagine what other magic is out there in the world is frustratingly limited. Once the first few chapters have established that this is a post-war setting full of veterans’ trauma and bereaved women’s grief, for instance, we never hear more about what the warmongers of Europe were doing with magic to make the experience so terrifying for the men like Arthur who fought there. (And war has a masculine perspective, as far as the story goes: Annie briefly mentioned she had considered volunteering as a nurse, but no women in the book actually did.) Jazz exists, thus so must the United States and the diasporic Black histories that birthed the music, yet otherwise these are a thoroughly white 1920s in a way the narrative does not stop to question. The device of dual first-person viewpoint characters, with chapters distributed between Annie and Emmeline, certainly enables Emmeline’s voice—with its deeper knowledge of magic—to convey information Annie would not yet have or would be too frightened to hold in mind; but even Emmeline’s thoughts on magic are largely limited to what it has meant in her personal past or present. Since the two narrative voices rarely differ in terms of language or cadence, perhaps a third-person viewpoint could have characterised Annie and Emmeline just as effectively, while letting the reader perceive more of their world.
For a narrative that ties itself so tightly to one specific era in the 1920s, the novel’s sense of magical history is also quite thinly drawn. The book’s very first sentence, as the dateline of the journal entry in the prologue, is “Mabon—Autumn Equinox.” As ancient as the name of the festival might sound, “Mabon” would not come into being for another fifty years, when the Pagan liturgist Aidan Kelly was striving in California to create an eightfold calendar: as Kelly himself writes, the pre-Christian ritual year in northern Europe did not associate any suitable myth with the autumn equinox, so he took the story of the rescued Mabon from the Welsh Mabinogion as the closest parallel to Greek and Hebrew myths of youths rescued from the underworld. (Ostara, Kelly’s name for the spring equinox, also duly appears in the social calendar of magical Crow Island.) Thematically, there is some sense in beginning the novel at Mabon, since a bungled resurrection spell incites the story’s climax, but unless we are to posit that whatever made magic real in this world also made the ritual calendar of contemporary reconstructionist Paganism an ancient truth, the anachronism draws away from the 1920s setting. Indeed, the forms that magic takes in the book often appear closer to the witchcraft of the 1990s, but projected back onto the 1920s, rather than to the magical culture of the 1920s themselves (besides Gatsby, Orbit’s other comparator for Wild and Wicked Things is Practical Magic, a classic of 1990s witchy cinema in which small-town love spells and resurrections also go wrong). As things stand, apart from some divination with a card system the major arcana of which overlap with the Tarot, 1920s occultism has left more trace on the cover design than the actual book.
Where the book does succeed in steering closely within the lines of its historic setting is in fashioning Emmeline, whose disregard for convention, men’s suits, cupid’s-bow lips and slicked-back hair (and indeed the exoticism projected onto her olive skin and French surname) belong to the same era of sapphic modernism as the figures in the paintings of Romaine Brooks or Tamara de Lempicka. At this moment in British queer history, historians such as Laura Doan have argued, lesbians were creating subcultural competences of recognising each other, but the wider public would not be conscious of this new lesbian identity until the press dragged it into the mainstream during the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness in 1928. 1920s settings accordingly lend themselves in a particularly trenchant way as a backdrop for the stock sapphic encounter between clear-hearted naivety and alluring experience. For Annie and Emmeline to be able to live the redemptive future promised by their epilogue, however, the narrative seemingly has to dispose of a bisexual, neurodivergent, and potentially genderqueer male character who sacrifices himself in a tussle with the man who emerges as the adversary of Annie’s secondary plot. Dark fantasy this may be, but readers of sapphic SFF in the present moment may be less patient than some thriller readers in being asked to accept that a new life for the romantic heroines has had to be bought with a queer man’s death.
Between the covers of Wild and Wicked Things, then, is a narrative of trauma and recovery which explores themes May has tackled in non-speculative fiction (her third novel as Fran Dorricott, The Lighthouse, is also being published in 2022 and takes place on an island, albeit in the Scottish Highlands). Its kinship with the psychological thriller and the more explicit approach to abuse that that genre tends to take, has been done a disservice by the glittery way in which its publisher has introduced this novel to the market, not unlike the phenomenon of all those themed parties with which Gatsby is often simultaneously evoked and misunderstood. The novel’s speculative elements come into focus when they can heighten characters’ emotions and tend to recede when they do not. Little might have been different about the story of Annie and Emmeline had it been a historical thriller in the real world, but there is enough substance to the placemaking of Crow Island that more stories of its magical islanders could still be told.