Title: Wildwood Whispers
Author: Willa Reece
Publication date: August 17, 2021
Genre: Fantasy, Women’s Fiction
One Sentence Summary: After the death of her best friend Sarah, Mel takes her ashes to Sarah’s family’s home in the small mountain town Morgan’s Gap, only to end up wrapped up in the town, the people, and the wildwood that refuses to let her go.
If Garden Spells (Sarah Addison Allen) had a baby with For the Wolf (Hannah Whitten) and made Snow Dust and Boneshine (Grendolyn Peach Soleil) and Quaking Soul (Jennifer M. Zeiger) it’s godmothers, I’m pretty sure Wildwood Whispers would be the product. It’s witchy and magical and the reverence to nature is stunning. There’s also something of an ideological undercurrent to the whole story as the people of Morgan’s Gap and the Sect community just a few miles away have a silent war going on. But Wildwood Whispers is also all about Mel, a foster child all her life, finally finding her place and a home and purpose.
Mel and Sarah met as children in foster care. Mel never knew her parents and Sarah’s mother was killed. But they have each other and they call each other sisters, drawn together as though by magic. When Sarah is killed, Mel keeps her promise of taking her ashes to the Ross cabin in Morgan’s Gap, a small Appalachian town on the edge of the wildwood.
Mel never intended on staying in Morgan’s Gap, but an elderly woman affectionately called Granny by everyone in town, takes her on as an apprentice, giving her time to heal and to learn. The longer she stays, the stronger Mel is tied to Morgan’s Gap and the wildwood, uncovering secrets and magic, and earning the hate of Reverend Moon, the man who runs a strict Sect community just a few miles away, compelling Mel to believe Sarah’s death wasn’t just an accident.
Wildwood Whispers is a witchy read. It’s witchier than I expected, but I loved it because of that. It doesn’t shy away from the magic, doesn’t give a sprinkle of magic and call it magical realism. It really brings magic into our reality, and made me believe in it all over again. I feel about ready to start gardening and hope it turns out to be just as magical as the wildwood.
Morgan’s Gap is an incredible and odd little town in the mountains of Virginia. It’s close knit, though traditions have started falling by the wayside and younger generations are more interested in modern times than the old magical ways of their parents and grandparents. It’s quaint, but didn’t always feel quintessentially southern to me. Still, I really liked how small and close it was. When times called for it, the town rallied together. There’s a delightful magical thread that runs through it all, connecting people and offering the wisewomen and woodsmen certain magical affinities and a unique closeness to the wildwood around the town. The wildwood was fascinating. At times, it felt truly alive and protective. At other times, it kind of freaked me out a little, but I loved how there’s such a close bond between it and the people. It’s a big part of the story and, while I probably wouldn’t want to wander around it, I couldn’t help but appreciate and love it.
At the same time, there’s something of a religious or ideological conflict underlying the entire story because a Sect community is just a few miles away. It’s strange and strict and cruel, especially to the women and girls. Led by Reverend Moon, it keeps its women close and obedient, though many seek the wisdom, magic, and healing of the Ross women and Granny. Moon, however, is displeased and haunts Mel as she moves through town, a threatening, shadowy figure who is good friends with Morgan’s Gap’s mayor.
As Mel becomes tangled more and more in Morgan’s Gap, she understands someone might have intentionally killed Sarah and her mother. She’s determined to solve that mystery, but it means danger is in her near future. Mel, though, is strong and brave. Once protective younger sister of Sarah, she’s now determined to find out exactly what happened to her friend and why while also taking her own rightful place in Morgan’s Gap. No matter how much danger it puts her in.
I had a hard time figuring Mel out. The story is told from her perspective, but I found it a struggle to get to know her. She repeatedly tells the reader how tough and closed off she is, but I couldn’t help but think of her as something softer. I know everything she did and why, but I didn’t always feel I understood, or even that she understood, what she was doing and why. The wildwood just seemed to hook it’s thorns into her and she was helpless. But I did like her. She’s so strong and wants so badly to do what’s right. In a way, she seems to be taking Sarah’s place, which kind of felt weird, but I loved that she was finding her own feet, her own home.
There’s also a bit of a romance. While it comes on early, it’s not very present. Jacob Walker is, for some reason, distrusted by Granny, but Mel feels pulled towards him. I enjoyed the conflicted feelings, but it also felt fairly predictable. How they ended up so closely wound, though, was a lot of fun. They have a unique, weird relationship.
The one thing that bothered me about Wildwood Whispers was the beginning. It switched so fast between Mel and Sarah I almost felt like I was getting whiplash. It took me a couple of chapters to really find my feet with this book. The flashbacks/memories were also a little jarring, but, by the end, they started making sense. I just wish they had tied in a little bit more into Mel’s story. It felt like they were built up around one detail and just spun out so they spanned a few pages.
Wildwood Whispers is a fun, magical, witchy read. I loved that some of the people had certain abilities, certain magical parts of their beings. I also loved the care it took with the natural world. It’s detailed and lush and there’s clearly a huge tie between the people and the wildwood. It felt at many times like it was showing reverence to nature, gently telling readers how important it is to respect nature and accept its gifts. I loved how the wisewomen used the nature offered to tend to the people of Morgan’s Gap, to offer remedies and aids and any kind of help they could.
Great if you enjoy:
- witchy reads
- stories about characters finding their place
- small towns
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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit and NetGalley for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.