Allison Saft’s debut novel, Down Comes The Night, snuck up on me. At first glance, it was a gothic horror fantasy about a desperate partnership between sworn enemies. I’m not generally a horror reader but I do love atmospheric novels and when a romance–especially one doomed from the start–appears to be involved, I can’t avoid it. With that in mind, I was clamoring for her next book before even finishing her debut. And when I finally got my hands on it, A Far Wilder Magic didn’t disappoint.
A Far Wilder Magic is set in an isolated manor in the densely packed woods on the edge of town. Margaret Welty has been keeping house, waiting for her alchemist mother to return so that they can be a family again. Margaret is content to fill her lonely days with chores, hunting in the woods with her hound, Trouble, and avoiding most of the bigoted townspeople who ostracize her for her Yu’adir heritage. It isn’t until she spots the legendary Hala and the Halfmoon Hunt begins and the arrival of an amateur alchemist at her door, that she gets a chance to prove herself and dream of something more than being left behind.
If you like novels with a palpable atmosphere, a world so tightly drawn that it’s hard to imagine lives existing outside of the ones in the pages, you will love an Allison Saft novel. Like Down Comes The Night, A Far Wilder Magic‘s setting is so fitting because of the dark, eerie descriptions and isolating nature of the town and its traditional hunt. Even though our main characters travel to a city at one point, it’s hard to imagine the scope of the world beyond the town, its woods, and the sea beyond. Because of that, this book makes you crave quiet spring afternoons or cold fall days, when the mood outside meets the mood in the book.
In addition to creating a rich setting, Allison Saft’s strengths are definitely in making you stick with characters too. Though Margaret Welty is hard around the edges, more used to being alone with her hound than people, you instantly feel for her and are ready to follow her. You can forgive her abrasiveness, her passiveness, and her isolation because of her hurt and loneliness. Margaret Welty has been abandoned by her mother, relentlessly tormented and made to feel different because of her father’s religion. She finds kinship, even though at first she despises him, for Wes, who is also ostracized because of his Banvish-Sumic immigrant parents.
When she realizes that his untapped alchemy might be the key to winning the Halfmoon Hunt, a goal she could never have imagined for herself, they form an unlikely alliance that grows into an understanding. Wes is charismatic and desperate to help his family. This hunt may be his last chance to use alchemy to provide a better life for his mother and sisters and step out from the prejudice most in New Albion have for Sumic immigrants. The underdog pairing will always be an enticing read, but now that they have more to prove due to the prejudices of the mostly Kathartic neighbors.
Slowest of Burns
Because I was captivated by the relationship Allison Saft wrote into Down Comes The Night, I was similarly hoping for another romance in her sophomore novel. This was a bit slower of a burn than I like my romance but I also loved reading the way they built their trust and respect for one another. I’ve read many reviews of the book that described the relationship between Wes and Margaret to be tender and I agree. It is sweet and earned and doesn’t feel rushed. Even though I wish we got more of their relationship, it felt real as it unfolded.
Unexpected and Anachronistic
Though I loved this book very much, there were a few things that took some getting used to as I read. I went into the book believing this to be more of a fantasy, with a slight horror edge but was thrown off by the religious analogues in the book–Yu’adir reads as Jewish, Katharist reads as Protestant, and Sumic as Catholic. I know that the basis of alchemy is very spiritual but I suppose I expected more original worldbuilding outside of three Western religions. Or maybe it is just because I’m not very religious and didn’t quite connect with that aspect of the book, I’m willing to accept that.
I suppose I was so angry on Margaret’s behalf for how her neighbors treated her and for the prejudices Wes and his family faced and it reminded me so much of the prejudices of the real world that it took me out of the story for a bit. Once I acclimated to that part of the story, I was fully enmeshed in the world. The only other thing that took me out of reading it was the moments when I had a hard time placing what time this was supposed to be. The telephones and cars felt anachronistic at times. It doesn’t detract from my love of the story and the characters; it was just a quirk of the book.
Hopeful and Otherworldly
One of the most beautiful things that I took away from the book, aside from the stunning writing and setting, was the way that Margaret and Wes found each other. Margaret and Wes are both forces of nature in their own way and together their strength and determination was lovely to read. They’ve both been broken by the past and they’re tethered to the responsibility to family. For Wes, this galvanizes him, and makes him persist even when everyone tells him to give up. For Margaret, her ties to her mother and the hope that her mother’s single-minded pursuit of alchemy will wain, hold her back. Wes may be the first person to see Margaret outside of her mother’s shadow, to care for her and get to know her as a person. And when he accepts her, knowing her trauma and invites her to create a life with him outside of Wickdon, it’s hopeful and beautiful, just like the rest of the book.
A Far Wilder Magic may not be the most edge-of-your seat, fast-paced reads. But it’s a slow, steady magical novel that deserves to be savored. If I wasn’t already a faithful reader of Allison Saft’s, this novel would cement my love for her words for sure. Don’t miss out on this one, you won’t regret picking it up.
A Far Wilder Magic was published on March 8, 2022.