‘Wildblood’ Picks Inconvenient Times for Romance

It is a coincidence that Lauren Blackwood’s latest novel, Wildblood, is posting on today of all days. I scheduled this YA fantasy for today before reading it, because it came out last week and I was excited about it. Turns out, though, that it is fitting to be talking about Wildblood on this 14th day of February, the holiday celebrating love, because Wildblood is a sharp YA fantasy with a lot to say about social and emotional issues that adds a dash of romance, and then slips and adds the whole bottle, making it a very different story than expected.

Victoria is a Wildblood, a wielder of blood science that can use living blood like any number of weapons. She’s the most powerful Wildblood on staff at Exotic Lands Touring Company as the nineteenth century bleeds into the twentieth, but for various reasons, mostly sexist and racist, she has no hope of gaining leadership within the company. This is particularly distressing to her when a large expedition books the company’s services to travel to a storied trove of gold deep in the jungle—and Victoria is relegated to second in command after Dean, a once-friend who betrayed her badly. Still, she has no choice but to do her best to keep the expedition safe and make Dean look good, because she’s got other people to worry about, too, including Bunny, a volatile Wildblood who is her little brother in all ways but blood.

Almost immediately, things start going wrong in the already ill-fated expedition. Before they even reach the edge of the jungle, one of the expedition’s men is killed by a deadly butterfly bite. Yes! The butterflies are horribly venomous, as are the spiders and every other creepy-crawly, and that’s to say nothing of the giant bulls or assorted jungle spirits between the group of puny mortals and the gold they so fervently seek. Worst of all is the expedition leader, Thorn, who is as sexy as he is determined. With all the threats from the outside, Victoria also has to contend with her barbed memories, as well as watch her back from those who pretend to be friends. It’s a dangerous world out there, and she’ll need all her wits about her if she hopes to keep everyone alive.

The concept of Wildblood takes the stories of ye olde expeditions of the Victorian era and flips them right on their pith-helmeted heads. On top of that, Victoria is a strong and fierce character whose powerful is equal parts intriguing and terrifying. She is comfortable in the embrace of the jungle only because of her own traumatic past, and because within the trees and vines she isn’t subjected to the discrimination her race, gender, and power all lay upon her. Her relationships with her friends, and those who have betrayed her, are also fascinating. All of this is the makings of a really rich and interesting novel filled with nuanced characters and moral shades of gray.

Which is why it was so very frustrating to me whenever Thorn came onto the page. Because on top of the intricate scaffolding Blackwood builds for us is a romance as subtle and nuanced as one of those giant stuffed bears holding a glittering heart between his paws.

Look, I know romance in books isn’t usually my thing. And I’ve written before about books being written for other people and not speaking to every reader, and how that’s fine! Good, even! So I’m okay with the romance in Wildblood being a great element for some people and very specifically not for me. I often found it difficult to focus on the worldbuilding and the peril of Blackwood’s really cool plot because of how much of Victoria’s focus is on Thorn.

At one point, Dean says, “I wish I understood what you see in Thorn.” And I couldn’t agree more. I’ll admit I can see the utility of the romance in how Blackwood builds to her ultimately satisfying ending, but it feels like things progressed too hot, too fast for the satisfaction of a slow-burn romance, and there’s too much peril for a hot and fast relationship to seem fitting. No matter how much I was drawn to the premise, I think the hard truth is that Wildblood is just not for me. But with a premise as cool as it has, I hope it finds a solid home somewhere.

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