Wilder by Penny Chrimes

The Blurb On The Back:

”The child came out of the wild-ness, out of the sparse bleak mark where few dared to go and none came back.  And though the villagers grew used to her, they did not forget from where she came.”

When the child walks out of the marsh, the villagers are wary. She is odd – half wild, with an unnatural bond to the falcon, who is always circling above her.  Only the Wise Woman is kind to her, taking her in and naming her Rhodd.

Over the years, the deadly marshland grows and grows and brings with it a fatal sickness to the village.  To save the creatures and the people she loves, Rhodd must return to the dark place she once fled and find out what has really happened to the wild.

WILDER was released in the United Kingdom on 16th February 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order WILDER by Penny Chrimes from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

When a small girl emerges from the marsh next to a village, the villagers are suspicious.  Wild-looking, with white blonde hair, horribly scarred legs and unable to speak the women are minded to drive it away, but the Wise Woman stops them.  Having lost her son to the marsh some years before, she resolves to take the girl in and names her Rhodd.

Several years later and Rhodd has learned to speak and hides next to the school where the boys are taught to learn how to read and write.  Her only friend is Gar, a super smart boy who is fascinated by science and engineering and how lives with his mother on the edge of the village near Rhodd and the Wise Woman.  Both are bullied by the other boys in the village (particularly by the Johnson boys, whose parents often fight) – Rhodd for her wild strangeness and Gar because he doesn’t have a father.

Rhodd doesn’t care what the villagers think of her.  She’s able to communicate with the animals and wildlife in the village and longs to be able to fly like the falcon who circles over her wherever she goes.  But she remains frightened of the marsh, which looms over the village and has slowly been choking it – driving away the shipping that the villagers were dependent on and taking away the boys of the village who disappear at night, never to be seen again.

When Lord Stanley (who owns the village and the surrounding lands) announces that he’s selling it and evicting all who live there, it coincides with a sickness that kills all who succumb to it.  The frightened villagers are convinced that Rhodd is the root of it and when the Wise Woman gets sick, Rhodd knows that she has to return to the marsh to find out what’s really causing the failure of the village and put an end to it once and for all.

Penny Chrimes’s fantasy novel for readers aged 9+ is a character-driven affair that draws on British folklore and the detrimental impact that greed and industry has on nature.  Rhodd is a well drawn character, but there isn’t a lot of plot here and I also wanted more of a sense of place and period (there are hints that it’s late Victorian and in the west of England but it’s never explicit).  It’s not that this is bad, it just didn’t gel for me.

Rhodd is a fascinating character, strong willed, wild and fighting against her destiny.  I enjoyed how torn she feels about the Wise Woman who has raised her, protected her and looked after her but who equally asks for things that Rhodd doesn’t see the point of, like doing chores and wearing dresses.  The way Chrimes depicts Rhodd’s ability to communicate with animals is well done, drawing out the girl’s empathy and compassion but also how different she is.  Equally good is the way that Chrimes shows the friendship between Rhodd and Gar – both of them outsiders in the village and victimised because of it and neither of them quite understanding each other – Rhodd is confused by Gar’s fascination with science and technology while Gar is a little scared of the wild fierceness that Rhodd can display.

However the story is slow to get going and while the fantasy elements are there from the start and there’s a seeded mystery of why boys from the village keep disappearing into the marsh, all of the answers are jammed into the few chapters, which means that nothing has time to breathe.  There’s also the fact that this is a story that doesn’t have a huge amount of plot – there’s the set up of the village gradually dying and Rhodd having to sort it out but not a huge amount in between.  There’s nothing wrong with that at all – and if you’re someone who’s into more character based fiction then this is perfect – but I’ve always been a plot fiend and I wanted a bit more bang for my buck, especially given the folklore elements like the legend of Hafren.

There are strong themes in the book about the damage that industrialisation does to the environment, which I think are well drawn.  However I wasn’t sure when this book is set – there are hints that it’s late Victorian as Gar talks about the exciting possibilities of electricity and Lord Stanley has a carriage but clearly it’s at a time when the villagers remain superstitious.  Equally, I wanted some sense of place because again, there are hints that this is somewhere in the west of England but there are no deals on where and I just wanted something to ground it.  This equally goes to the geography of the village – this is one of those books where a map would have been really useful as I had difficulties visualising Rhodd’s journey into the marsh – especially in the scenes where she has to climb cliffs.

Ultimately if you’re into character-driven fiction, then there is a lot here for you and I did enjoy Chrimes’s writing style.  For me, there wasn’t quite enough plot and just a bit too much left undeveloped and although I would stress again that there’s nothing wrong with that it just wasn’t my full cup of tea.  

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