At six-years-old, Victoria was kidnapped from her home in the Jamaican jungle and sent to work as a guide for a touring company. Her ability to use blood to do magic—as well as being a light skinned biracial Black girl who is also attractive—allows her boss, a repugnant and abusive white man, to extract a high price for her labor. None of which trickles down to Victoria. Now at eighteen, she has a plan to escape from the touring company with her friends Bunny and Samson in tow. It all depends on her being tapped as the lead on their next tour.
But of course she’s passed up for her competition, Dean, a white passing Black boy who has spent the last several years sucking up to the boss, often at Victoria’s expense. When Thorn, an African American goldminer, and his white companions hire the company to take them to a legendary goldmine at the heart of the forest, Victoria and Dean must find a way to work together if they have any hope of surviving the horrors within the trees.
Before we get too far in, I need to do a trigger warning. Victoria was sexually assaulted in the past, and it’s mentioned several times during the story. She and the other children and teens working at the touring company experience frequent abuse at the hands of the white guards, the white boss, and the Black overseer. These elements are central to the plot, and several occur on the page, so be prepared going in. It’s important to note that Blackwood does not utilize these plot points as mere devices or in a sensationalist way. They make sense within the story structure and are handled by her in a way I found honest and respectful. Victoria’s journey through that abuse is not the healthiest, and she makes choices I would not, but they feel like choices that are true to her personality.
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In the midst of a publishing trend of YA fantasies clocking in at over 400 pages, Wildblood is a tight 336. The plot moves quickly, always accelerating even when the characters are taking a break from the action. The pace kept me hooked. The tension ramps up the deeper the adventurers get into the jungle until you’re no longer certain if even Victoria will make it out alive.
The only place where I think the speed hindered the story is in the insta-love subplot. I’m not a fan of insta-love in general, but as long as it works in the story it’s fine. Here it makes sense overall, but falters in the details. I could not figure out what it was about Thorn that Victoria felt so pulled to, other than he’s hot and charming. He comes off like the default love interest, a boy she’s into less because of who he is and more because he’s the only available boy in her vicinity (the others are too young, too platonic, or too antagonistic). If she had any other options, I’m not convinced she would be as into him as she was.
I also would’ve liked a little bit more on the worldbuilding front, particularly with regards to magic. I’m still a little hazy on what’s actually happening. Are Wildbloods only in Jamaica? Is there magic elsewhere in the world? Are there other touring companies using Wildbloods to navigate the jungle? Does the government or outside world know children are being sold or kidnapped? If Victoria, Bunny, and Samson did get free, would they be able to access other magical communities or would they be the lone magic users wherever they go? Blackwood leaves a lot unsaid. Sometimes that can feel thrilling, and sometimes there are enough context clues where the reader can fill in the blanks or speculate, but in the case of Wildblood the lack of information made it hard to settle into the world. That said, what worldbuilding we got was excellent. The nod to West African and Jamaican diasporic folkloric traditions was wonderful.
Lauren Blackwood is basically the Alexis Henderson of young adult fiction. If you liked The Year of the Witching or House of Hunger, you’ll probably like Within These Wicked Walls and Wildblood. Both authors tackle being biracial Black and white in a world displeased by such mixing, colorism, and the lengths Black women must go to protect themselves from the violence of white supremacy, cisalloheteronormativity, and the patriarchy.
Wildblood is published by Wednesday Books.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).