“Just because you’ve never been to the Philippines doesn’t mean their rivers don’t course through your blood. It doesn’t mean you don’t have their mountains in your eyes. It’s not where we are, it’s who we are. You’ll always be both a Makiling and a Warnock, and always a Filipina. Never forget that.” [page 46]
I’ve long been wishing for a Filipino-inspired fantasy, and Wicked as You Wish delivered in spades. Not only is the main character Tala Filipino-American, but her family’s magic is steeped in Filipino culture, and all the scenes with Tala’s family are basically a love letter to all things Filipino. To name a few: Tala and her mom’s side of the family, who are the magic users, are called the Makilings, after Maria Makiling, and they call their magic ‘agimat’ (amulet). Tala’s grandmother Lola Urduja and the other kickass adults in her family are called the Katipuneros (a reference to historical Filipino rebels… there’s even a character called Heneral Luna!). There’s a full scene with a Filipino feast, including lechon, adobo and even some ersatz kakanin that Tala’s poor Scottish father bought in a store and Lola Urduja relegated to the trash. Tala fights with arnis sticks, which is an awesome Filipino martial art. There’s even a scene where Alex (the prince that Tala and her family have to protect) asks why they’re helping him, and Tala’s family responds by explaining the concept of bayanihan (community coming together to help each other). The beginning of this novel is very much steeped in Filipino history and culture, and I was hooked.
Unfortunately, overall, I found the world building too convoluted. Beyond the Filipino references, it often felt like Chupeco tried to cram in as many fairy tales as possible into a single world (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, the Snow Queen), and except for the Snow Queen (a villain in this story), none of the other fairy tale references were really relevant to the story. Like Sleeping Beauty was actually a fierce warrior whose spindle was a sword? It’s a cool idea in theory, but it never went anywhere, and soon there were just too many references to keep track of.
There are also a lot of different kinds of magic (spell tech, Tala’s agimat, curses, something about ice maidens and shape shifters, and so on), which is likely a callout to the series title A Hundred Names for Magic, and similar to the fairy tales, they never quite pulled together into a single cohesive mythology. The novel’s world straddled a kind of fairy tale land (Avalon) mixed with legends (Excalibur) mixed with our own world (Carlyy Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe in a pretty kickass training scene), and I couldn’t quite get a clear grasp of what the world as a whole was like.
In a way, I see what Chupeco was trying to do: bring all sorts of world mythologies, fairy tales and legends into a single world where all the different approaches to magic intersect. There are some pointed references to America being a melting pot of cultures, and in a way, this book is like a melting pot of a bunch of different fairy tales and magics. But while the book may have managed to stitch these all together, it didn’t quite manage to convey their meaning as a whole. The result feels more like a hodge podge than a fully realized world, and I wish Chupeco had focused a bit more on fleshing out one or two main threads than in trying to cram it all in.
The characters were all right. Tala was incredible, and, unusually for a YA book, I actually found the adult characters (her family) the most compelling. So many YA books keep the adults away from the action, so I love that Tala’s entire family, including her grandmother, were right in there kicking ass with her. It struck me as very much a Filipino style of superheroics, where the extended family is integrated into the the main character’s life and journey.
To be fair, this may be a personal bias, in that I liked them best because of their Filipino mannerisms. But most of the younger characters felt a bit flat to me. Ryker, who is Tala’s love interest, is pretty complex and has a fantastic back story, so I look forward to reading more of him in future books. I also really liked the developing romance between Zoe and Cole, whose dynamic reminded me a bit of Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter books. I also sympathized with West, a shape shifter whom Alex straight up calls ugly at one point. Most of the team had some pretty cool powers, but I never really got a clear sense of why they had banded together and why they cared about bringing Alex back to Avalon. Chupeco does give us a bit of each character’s back story, but not quite enough for me to connect with them emotionally.
Alex, who was Tala’s BFF and the main impetus for the characters’ quest, turned out to be the most disappointing. Despite being nominally the other main character, he mostly faded into the background. I loved the whole concept of the firebird, and the firebird itself was an awesome character, but Alex, as the heir to throne of Avalon and the Chosen One who can harness the firebird’s powers, barely did anything nor showed any personality apart from a few strong scenes in the beginning and the end.
Still, I loved the Filipino references, and the fact that each character’s magic had some kind of connection to the mythology of their family’s country of origin. Chupeco also explores real world issues like homophobia and racism, and in a fantastic scene where Lola Urduja and the Katipuneros encounter ICE agents, they straight up call out the double standards in how they treat white persons and BIPOC persons.
The series name references one of my favourite passages in the book, which I just found absolutely lovely. I especially love how some of the Tagalog words Tala’s father uses to refer to magic don’t quite transliterate to ‘magic’ exactly, but rather to similar words like serenade and fate. I love how this expands our understanding of what magic is.
“Yer mum’s people have a saying,” her father said quietly. “About there being a hundred names for magic in the Tagalog language. A bit like that old song about native Alaskans having fifty words for snow. Every culture gets to make that claim, but it’s particularly true with Filipinos, I think.”
“Like agimat?” Tala’s Tagalog needed some brushing up, but that’s what they’ve always called their Makiling curse.
“Aye. And kulam, and anting-anting, and some others you don’t expect. Harana, tadhana. Yer mother would know more than me. What I mean is, you’ve got magic in your blood, love. You can’t take it out of you any more than you can will yourself to stop breathing. Y’got a whole language of charms.” [page 46]
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.
I love this diversity and representation in fantasy! I love learning other culture’s mythology and folklore. I’m sorry to hear that it got a little confusing though…