REVIEW: Wickedly Wonderful by Deborah Blake
Dear Deborah Blake,
Following up your shining, captivating fiction debut, you return us to your world of updated Baba Yagas in Wickedly Wonderful. Instead of the old, child-eating crones of Russian fairy tales, you have reimagined the Baba Yaga as the job title of witches charged with the responsibility to protect the vulnerable, guard the boundaries between this world and the supernatural Otherworld, and maintain the balance between human, natural, and magical forces. And these very-long lived magical woman tend to be powerfully beautiful as well. In a nice twist on the series formula, instead of following the story of the heroine of the first book, Barbara Yager, the Baba Yaga who fought dark forces both human and magical to save a small town in New England, we pick up the story of Beka Yancy, a young and uncertain Baba Yaga with great affinity for the waters off of the California coast. Everything in Beka’s world is oriented toward the sea, including her dragon Chudo Yudo’s doggy disguise – he’s a Newfoundland! Beka’s Chudo Yudo is just as fun and clever as Barbara’s, though gentler, since young Beka needs to be handled with a bit more care.
Beka faces the first challenge of her career as a Baba Yaga, and she’s not at all sure she can handle it. The merpeople and selkies (seal shape-shifters) who live in the warm Southern California waters have sickened, and no-one knows why, least of all the brand-new Baba who is tasked with saving them all. Brenna, her mentor, was forced into retirement by the Queen of the Otherworld, but she’s left her protégé feeling more like a failure than a prodigy. It reminded me of the dynamic at the center of Tangled, and I think will resonate to anyone who has had that desperate desire to please someone who never will see their true worth. Crippled by that all-too-familiar imposter syndrome, Beka seeks reassurance in any corner. She finds it in the arms of a gray-eyed, slick Selkie prince, who is suspiciously willing to listen and help as he feeds her glistening sushi he refuses to partake in himself.
While Kesh, the selkie prince, juggles seducing Beka and poisoning his own people in revenge for being denied his inheritance (villains are so hard working, aren’t they?), Beka charms an elderly fisherman into letting her dive from his boat. That boat, though, is being run by brawny Marcus Dermott Junior, the fisherman’s son. Marcus is a tough but good-hearted veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and he has come back to run his father’s boat as his dad undergoes a last-ditch treatment for lung cancer. Marcus is capable at sea, but memories of his ocean-loving brother, swept over the side of the boat when he was just a boy, haunt both his time on the waves and his relationship with his father, whom Marcus blames for Kyle’s death. A practical-minded guy, he can’t stand what he sees as the woo-woo elements of beachy California, which beautiful, bohemian surfer Beka embodies in every inch.
Spending time together on the boat as Beka dives for answers and Marcus tries to bring in enough of a catch to keep the boat literally afloat, they rub each other the wrong way, but also the right way if you know what I mean (wink wink). Unlike the first book, where the characters, though they had some emotional baggage, didn’t have a lot of hang-ups about hooking up, Beka’s timidity and Marcus’s carapace of trauma keep them from admitting the truth about their attraction. Marcus’s total dismissal of magic makes Beka afraid he’ll think she’s crazy, and when Marcus hears about her twilight picnics with Kesh, he assumes she has both a boyfriend and terrible taste in men. Even after they kiss the first time, which is incredibly passionate and explosive, they aren’t sure if the other one likes them, and they stumble along pretending they aren’t totally on fire for each other. Luckily, your masterful handling of world-building means that there are plenty of characters around them who can see right through the obstinate blindness of Marcus and Beka, and eventually they get shaken out of their fear of intimacy and the unknown. I love that your books come alive with the wealth of detail and the three-dimensionality of minor characters.
Beka’s complete lack of faith in herself, having been undermined all her life by her supposed mentor, means she came across to me as less of a compelling character than Baba. She evokes sympathy, because who hasn’t been afraid they’ll never live up to their potential? But it’s not as much fun to watch her limp along, stumbling into danger and deepening her self-doubt as it was to watch motorcycle-riding Barbara charge headlong into danger in the previous book. This is highlighted when Barbara shows up from time to time, both in letters and in person. She’s such a compelling character that Beka seems washed out in comparison. That Beka keeps characterizing herself and being described as a “flaky hippie” in that exact turn of phrase also got very annoying – yes, we get it, she sells jewelry at craft fairs and lives in a camper van (that’s actually an awesome magic hut). It felt cheap and shallow to make that the extent of her character. I do love that Beka is not just a Baba clone, since that would just be a retread, but we end up with a lot of material along the lines of the “you don’t even know how beautiful you truly are” trope.
I also found the mystery and the resolution clunkier and shallower than the first book. It also revolves around a threat to the natural environment, like the first, and the villain is similarly a supernatural creature enraged at humans for damaging the environment – but there’s a lot of tortured explanation about why this means that Kesh is partnering with a human named Charlie Kelly, in charge of disposing radiation from a nearby nuclear plant, and using the waste to poison those sea people loyal to his father. Kesh wants to get rid of the weaklings, supposedly, and take the land back from people as they’ve taken the ocean from the selkies, but it’s a bit of a stretch. I do like your continued exploration of this liminal position of the Baba Yaga, who is charged with protecting the magical world, the human world, and the natural world, often from each other. This theme comes more to the fore in this book.
However, the great threat to Beka’s life – her exposure to the contaminated water and to Kesh’s special sushi – could have been resolved so easily, andhaving read the previous book, I could see it twenty thousand leagues away. Beka is so unsure of whether or not she’s strong enough to be a Baba Yaga that she has stopped her daily dose of the Water of Life and Death, which gives her and the other Baba Yagas extended life. She’s almost thirty, and if she keeps drinking it after this next birthday, there’s no going back. But she keeps “forgetting” to drink it, even though a single sip would make Kesh’s efforts to weaken her completely impotent. Yes, she is dithering over this major life decision, but it’s just frustrating that they talk about the Water of Life and Death at every turn, yet she never thinks to take a sip to heal herself.
But while the plot is thinner in Wickedly Wonderful, the world of fishing and bonfires on the beach that Beka and Marcus inhabit and their romance are all tons of fun and full of heart. I also loved the connections back to the first book (we find out what Barbara and her sheriff are up to these days), and the hints dropped as to what will be the driving mystery in the third book. It’s a very well-constructed trilogy, and I’ll definitely read the third one when it comes out. Grade: B
Marthine thinks you shouldn’t raise children on Oz, Narnia, and Shakespeare unless you are prepared for a love of magic and mystery to root deeply in your offspring. Marthine devoured sci-fi and fantasy as a kid, grew out of it for a while, and has grown back into it. In college, she called it “magical realism,” and now she calls it fun. Find her on Twitter at @MSatris and online at marthinesatris.com. When not writing, she edits for a literary press and teaches English to college freshmen.