REVIEW: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs
CW: sexual assault, incest, infanticide, forced pregnancy, child death, graphic violence, pet death
Dear Patricia Briggs,
I’ve been a big fan of your books for many years now. In fact, in the hell year that was 2020, I did a comfort re-read of all of the Mercy Thompson world books (including the graphic novels) in chronological order.
Anna and Charles are two of my favourite fictional people and I was excited to dive into Wild Sign. I did find it completely engrossing and compelling. I ripped through the book in about 48 hours and the only reason it took that long was that I was limited in the time I had to read.
The atmosphere of the novel is super creepy – it could reasonably be described as a horror story in fact. There are a number of Lovecraft references and, while I’m far from an expert in things Lovecraftian, I know enough to know that it was a big factor in the tone you were going for here.
Anna and Charles’s love for one another continues to grow. Anna went through some pretty tough situations and the way Charles was there for her tugged at all my heartstrings and made me happy sigh (even though the situations that caused it did not.)
I love the way Charles is so strong and gentle with Anna and so fiercely protective of her even while he fully recognises that he cannot wrap her in cotton wool. He stands at her side or at her back so she can do what she has to do.
But I was, and still am, deeply conflicted about certain things in the story.
I won’t go into the plot here too much – Anna and Charles are sent by Bran on a mission to find out what happened to a community of people who live “off grid” and on some land owned by the Pack. There’s a connection to Leah and her history. More is revealed as the story goes along – however, to explain, even briefly, what troubled me I necessarily have to disclose some spoilers.
Almost all of the female characters in Wild Sign have been or are sexually assaulted during the course of the book. Anna’s own history of sexual assault is more graphically depicted than even in Alpha & Omega or Cry Wolf and there are other assaults that occur to her in this book as well. Some aspects of this book reminded me uncomfortably of what happened to Mercy Thompson in Iron Kissed (although I hasten to add that it is only some aspects, far from all). Leah’s history is full of sexual violence and unspeakable trauma and multiple instances where her consent was violated. Other secondary characters are also raped. Having read the entire series again last year, much of it was still fairly fresh in my mind and it is difficult to not notice just how often sexual violence is used as a plot point or character device. But in Wild Sign there is so much more of it. It was difficult to read. Compelling, yes. My heart was in my throat and I was afraid for the characters and heartbroken for them – but it sometimes felt like easy manipulation and other times it just felt gratuitous. I feel like I have a fairly high threshold of what I can comfortably read – although I’m also noticing that it is lowering over time – but this was beyond my comfort levels in many ways.
There is also the matter of what I saw as Leah’s characterisation being almost completely retconned. The story told to readers about how Bran came to marry Leah over the past 17 or so books is simply not true. (I discussed my thoughts more fully in Janine’s spoilerific post about Leah and Bran’s relationship so I won’t go into it again here.)
And I found the epilogue profoundly upsetting and unsettling. Arguably, the HEA of one of the couples from the series has been broken or at least deeply damaged (not Charles and Anna – though there is a flow-on effect there too I think.) The Mercy Thompson books aren’t romance books. They’re urban fantasy and as I understand it, the UF genre doesn’t promise a HEA. But I am a romance reader and I approach the series through that lens. The romantic relationships are very important to me and, even if it is perhaps unfair given the series is not romance, my reading experience is filtered through those rose-coloured romance glasses.
After I finished the book, I wrote on Goodreads “I am not okay”. That remains true. I don’t know how to grade the book. Based purely on how engrossed I was it would be an A. However, based on how much it disturbed me (and not in the way I want to be disturbed by a book) and the extremely bittersweet epilogue (which emphasis on the bitter), I’d have to give it a D. I don’t know how to put that together.
It’s also true to say that no matter how much this book disturbed me and how upset I was and am about some aspects of the story and all the sexual violence, I will still read the next book. I do hope that Anna’s experience with sexual assault is now at an end. While I know it is not up to me, of course, I would most definitely like to see far less rape in any future books in the Mercyverse.
I think the reading experience for others will be heavily influenced by how high their squick-meters goes, what their triggers are, what value they place on the romantic arcs/HEAs, perhaps how much of the rest of the series is fresh in a reader’s mind and how that all gets mixed in with a reading experience which is nonetheless riveting and completely holds the attention – even for long after the book is done. If I didn’t care so much about the characters in this book, it would not have affected me as much. And that I care about the characters as much as I do, is all down to you as well. So… [insert shrug emoji here]