Title: The Wicker King
Author: Kayla Ancrum
Release Date: October 31st, 2017
Genre(s): Young Adult, Psychological Thriller
Page Count: 320 (hardback)
This book is dedicated to all the kids whose arms are filled with too much for them to hold, but who are trying their best not to drop a single thing.
The Wicker King is a story about the dangers of codependency. But it’s also about the neglect and casual abuse that children face at the the hands of adults, which lead to such dangers in the first place. Most people would write this kind of story as a contemporary in normal prose.
Not Kayla Ancrum.
Ancrum tells this story through the eyes of two teenage boys. Jack, who believes he can see into a fantasy world that overlaps our own, in which he is the king of. And August, Jack’s best friend, who is also his one true knight. According to Jack, the two of them are tasked with a dangerous quest. And if they can fulfill this prophecy, the Wicker King and his Champion, then maybe–just maybe– this other world would disappear and Jack would be free. On top of all this, the story is told in microfiction and multimedia form; very short “chapters” are interspersed with various notes, documents, photos, and even recipes. Even the pages themselves add to the story–as Jack’s fantasy world becomes progressively more dominant, the pages become more and more stained, eventually turning into a solid black. The result is an astoundingly unique and psychologically immersive experience.
August and Jack’s relationship is as suffocating as it is heartbreaking. August wants to care for Jack like he (August) has never been. And Jack wants the love and devotion that was always missing from his own life. Both of their families have largely abandoned them and so they try to find the missing pieces in one another. It’s difficult stuff to read through but it helps explain so much of their unhealthy behaviour.
August and Jack start off acting like normal teenagers. Then, as Jack’s other world becomes clearer and more prevalent, their relationship begins to oscillate. From teenagers to medieval king and knight. And then back to teenagers again. It’s strange. It’s jarring. And a little frightening. But most of all, it’s compelling. Like a burning house whose destructive beauty you can’t take your eyes off of.
And the writing is just stunning. It’s as erratic as the boys’ relationship, alternating between casual teenager speech to formal, stylized dialogue that so often took my breath away.
“Do they still sing songs of my victory?” August choked.
“They do. And they’ll crescendo like beacons to the farthest reaches. With every new breath of life that forms in a world without darkness that came at the price of your hands and your mind.”
But the last 50 pages are what truly makes this book–filled with poetry and heartrending exploration of mental illness and the fine divide between love and obsession. And Ancrum gets the distinction of writing the only Author’s Note that has ever made me tear up.
The Wicker King is a book that defies genres. One that blurs the line between realism and fantasy to explore the story of two children who have taken on so much of life’s burdens. And for those who worry that this is another one of those books where queer characters don’t get a happy ending, I assure you that isn’t the case here. While August and Jack’s journey isn’t an easy one by any means, Ancrum breathes life to the phrase, “It is always darkest just before dawn.”