A Review of A Far Wilder Magic by Allison Saft

To be published March 8, 2022 by Wednesday Books.

I should start by saying that I read Allison’s Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic in one sitting. I haven’t done that in years, which leads me to the primary adjective I’d use to describe Saft’s sophomore novel: unexpected. This novel follows Margaret and Weston, teenagers whose families practice the Yu’adir and Sumic religions respectively; this makes them both outsiders in the heavily religious country of New Albion, where most follow the prominent Katharist religion. Margaret’s mother, Evelyn Welty, is a famous alchemist who has disappeared—as she often does—on one of her obsessive research trips. Aspiring alchemist Wes has shown up at the Welty Manor looking to become Evelyn’s apprentice. Wes wants to prove his alchemical abilities after being kicked out of several apprenticeships, and Margaret wants to prove herself worthy of her mother’s return. The two, therefore, decide to join the Halfmoon Hunt, a sacred event at which alchemists and hunters pair up to hunt the last living hala, an elusive beast seen as evil by the Katharists but revered as a divine being by the Yu’adir and Sumic people.

The heavy religious elements in this novel were something I didn’t anticipate, but it imbued the character’s motives with importance. With constant discrimination from their community, Margaret and Wes are working to prove not only themselves but also that success is not contingent on identity or background. Saft doesn’t shy away from showing the ugliness of bigotry, nor the hardships the main characters must endure simply for the identities they were born into. She interestingly shows how their ingrained fear of rejection and hatred even affects their relationship with each other, as they dread the repercussions of being honest about who they really are. Throughout this struggle, Saft returns to themes of self-love, self-acceptance, and proudly believing in yourself in the face of hatred. I especially appreciate that she juxtaposes these with related themes, such as the importance of accepting love from others and learning to differentiate between love and dependence. It is impressive to see how Saft explores the complexities of love in relationships beyond just the romance that blossoms throughout her novel, including love for family, friends, neighbors, and even pets.

I believe that A Far Wilder Magic is, at its core, a love story. While the back cover hints at a burgeoning romance set against a fantastical world, the relationship between Margaret and Weston was much more gripping and satisfying than I had expected. That being said, I am a sucker for cheesy romance every now and again, and this book definitely hits some of the common cliches (i.e. simultaneously reaching for something and brushing each other’s hands). Even as I found myself identifying these tropes, however, I couldn’t stop myself from adoring this romance. Their interactions are funny and endearing, the kind of back-and-forth banter I could read for hours. I also found their romance to be beautifully paced, a slow burn that remains subtle even as it becomes increasingly palpable. Margaret and Weston understand each other on a level that most in their lives don’t, both having experienced prejudice their entire lives. The traumas they each have endured at a young age—neglect, death of loved ones, discrimination, etc.—make for two dynamic characters whose walls slowly break down through Saft’s storytelling.

Perhaps what I admire most about Saft’s writing is her careful attention to her characters. While the world Saft presents throughout her novel is brimming with fantasy and magic, it’s also grounded in reality by its inhabitants: people influenced by their long-held beliefs and customs and the consequent kinship and tensions between them. I came to care deeply about Margaret, who has shut out the world and learned to fend for herself due to a mostly absent mother. I found myself rooting for Weston, who is told repeatedly that he’s a failure who can never achieve his dreams. Saft seems to suggest that he struggles with something akin to dyslexia, resulting in being kicked out of all his apprenticeships for his difficulty retaining information. This is just one example of the admirably diverse cast Saft includes in her novel; she also features religious and ethnic diversity, as well as queer representation. Mentions of characters’ sexuality don’t feel like attempts to meet some queer quota, but rather honest depictions of real diversity. Honesty, in fact, is something with which I felt Saft approached all her character depictions. The characters’ dialogue feels natural and real, and many of them are morally ambiguous. As Saft expertly crafts these complex characters, there are times you question the heroes and times you understand the villains.

Margaret and Wes’s character evolution and romance are aspects of A Far Wilder Magic that were beautifully paced. Fortunately, this made the novel very enjoyable despite some sections of the story that I felt were a bit rushed. In the introduction, for example, there is quite a bit of what feels like info-dumping about the hala, the beliefs surrounding it, and the sacred hunt to kill it. While this is all pertinent background information to the story, part of me wished I also got to learn more about Margaret or experience more of her lonely life in the eerie manor her mother left her in. Furthermore, the hala shows up in the flesh very early in the story, something that I felt took away from the mystical nature of the beast. When it came to the culminating event of the story—the Halfmoon Hunt—I felt that it could’ve been a longer, more involved section of the book. After so much build-up, spending more time on the hunt could have made the outcome feel more impactful and satisfying.

I truly enjoyed A Far Wilder Magic, as evidenced by the way it captured my attention from beginning to end. If you enjoy YA romance, fantasy, and a touch of eeriness in your books, Allison Saft’s novel is probably for you. Saft uses vivid language in her books, imbuing Welty Manor and the woods surrounding it with an atmosphere that is at once beautiful and sinister. This seems to mirror her novel’s balance between the at times heavy subject matter and the delicate excitement of first love. For a novel that will continue to pull at all your emotional strings, keeping you truly immersed, I highly recommend A Far Wilder Magic.

Jessenia Hernandez

Jessenia Hernandez earned her B.A. with majors in English and Communication Studies from Florida Atlantic University. She dabbles in writing poetry and short fiction and had her short story “Skin” published in FAU’s literary magazine, Coastlines. She loves to read YA fiction, high fantasy (the kinds of books with a map of a made-up world at the front), historical fiction, and the occasional cheesy romance to get her through reading slumps. She has worked as a writing consultant and bookseller, and one day hopes to edit and/or market fiction novels. She also earned a certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from FAU, and constantly strives to advocate for the rights and representation of marginalized communities. When she’s not reading or writing, you can find her scream-singing to musical theater songs or experimenting with baking.