Colleen Mondor Reviews The Wicked Remain by Laura Pohl
The Wicked Remain, Laura Pohl (Sourcebooks Fire 978-1-7282-2890-7, $10.99, tp, 462 pp) September 2022. Cover by Ray Shappell.
Laura Pohl finishes off her Grimrose Girls duology with The Wicked Remain and there is a lot, A LOT, to absorb in this 450+ page read. Picking up soon after the events of The Grimrose Girls, our four heroines are reeling from the discovery in that book that they are trapped in a deadly fairy tale curse that appears to have been going on for centuries. Nani, Yuki, Ella, and Rory are doomed to relive the dangerous lives of the protagonists from ‘‘Beauty and the Beast’’, ‘‘Snow White’’, ‘‘Cinderella’’, and ‘‘Sleeping Beauty’’, with forgone tragic results. Their elite Swiss boarding school classmates are laboring under their own dark futures, (the student trapped in ‘‘Rapunzel’’ is particularly disturbing), but none of them know they are just pawns on a magical chessboard. In fact, while girls die with startling regularity at Grimrose Academy, part of the curse means that no one really notices and enrollment continues. The four at the center of the story have gotten further on finding out just what is going on than anyone else however, and are determined to end the curse once and for all.
Pohl nails the dark academia aesthetic perfectly here with all the proper nods to gothic architecture, wintry outfit descriptions, the sort of lush and mysterious descriptions we have come to expect since the advent of Hogwarts and, this time, an actual bonafide escape from a European castle thrown into the mix. Everyone has personal issues to deal with, some more relatable than others, and the cast diversity is most welcome. Readers will also find in this sequel the same breakneck pace as in the first book, and Pohl continues to exhibit no fear when it comes to inciting thrills, chills, and threats of bloody death. The problem is that this is one convoluted plot, and by the end it becomes very complicated to figure out just who has done what and why, although no one may care at that point with all the running around, yelling, and vanquishing of villains.
Just to give you an idea: Nani must find out what happened to her missing father, and also salvage her rapidly disintegrating relationship with girlfriend Svenja, who is under threat from her murderously possessive cousin who is also a student at Grimrose. Yuki must challenge and/or rescue her stepmother, grapple with her own burgeoning magic and go head-to-head with the villains behind the curse because she appears to be the one who is fated to do that. Rory must fend off the relentless demands of her fabulously wealthy and powerful family, hide her royal identity, pursue a relationship with her fencing partner and, as somewhat of a warrior princess, save everybody else from death. Ella must survive the physical abuse of her wicked stepmother, determine if she really loves her boyfriend or is just succumbing to her own fairytale plot, keep the faith for her exhausted friends, convince Yuki not to go thermonuclear until they are sure they know what is going on, and physically write actual happy endings for everybody involved.
It’s a lot, folks, and keeping it straight while also trying to track the origins of the curse (which is sort of revealed by the discovery of yet another old book in a store in Germany first by Nani online and then by Yuki when she is on the run), can be too much at times. The villain reveal is also terribly weak, with them serving as convenient scapegoats rather than possessing well-thought-out backstories. (This bit leans perhaps a bit too hard on the fairytale trope where villain motivation is about hating the young and beautiful.)
I really wanted to love this duology. Pohl’s idea is clever, and she clearly relishes weaving so many classic tales in and out of the contemporary plot. But while the girls are complicated in the best sort of ways, the blend of modern sensibility with the constraints set forth by the tales gets a bit problematic. Ella, for example, suffers terribly because that was the plight of Cinderella. It’s a bit difficult to believe however that no adult she encounters recognizes the signs of physical abuse and even her boyfriend fails to realize her body is heavily bruised when they have sex until afterwards when she is, conveniently, standing in full light. (I struggled to believe she would even want to have sex when her injuries are so numerous.) Rory suffers from fibromyalgia, and her physical pain is more believably addressed than Ella’s, who, by the end, is half-starved and beaten, but for some reason keeps hanging in there at home to turn 18 and finally (somehow?) obtain her inheritance. It’s Switzerland. They have police and child protective services. The fact that her rich friends all think there is nothing that can be done to save Ella from continued violence is flat-out bizarre.
The Wicked Remain does the job of answering the lingering questions from The Grimrose Girls and gives the characters a resolution to their many [many] problems. Readers who want to go along for the ride will find that more than enough, just as long as they don’t look for everything to make sense in their wild dash to the end.
This review and more like it in the February 2023 issue of Locus.
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