Book Review: “When My Heart Was Wicked” by Tricia Stirling

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When My Heart Was Wicked is a fascinating exploration of a troubled mother-daughter relationship, with just a tad of magic thrown in. The story focuses on 16-year-old Lacy, whose father has recently passed away. After his death, her unreliable mother Cheyenne waltzes unwelcome back into Lacy’s life, forcing her to move away from her beloved stepmother, school, and friends. Beyond losing everything she cares about, Lacy harbors a deeper fear – that living with Cheyenne will bring out the worst in Lacy, just like it used to before she went to live with her father.

It’s a slim volume but one that packs a lot of punch. Lacy is compelling as a young woman only recently recovered from a life of poverty and hardship. When she lived with her mother, she’d be left alone for days at a time, forced to steal food to survive. She could easily slip back into her old ways, when she used to be cruel to those around her, and she desperately doesn’t want to. Her relationship with her mother only complicates things – Cheyenne, rather wicked herself, would rather have the old Lacy back.

As you can probably tell from what I’ve told you of the book, the magical element in When My Heart Was Wicked is very slight. Lacy and her mother have powers from some unidentified source, and while Lacy would prefer to use her powers to make healing plants grow, Cheyenne prefers to use magic for more nefarious purposes. I like author Tricia Stirling’s incorporation of magic. For much of the novel, it’s not a defining narrative factor or even explored very deeply, which has the effect of making it all the more realistic – it’s just another part of Lacy’s world.

For everything I liked about the book, though, it still didn’t sit quite right with me. I found myself wanting more in certain places and less in others. For instance, as I mentioned, the magic is almost background noise compared to everything else that is going on in the novel, but Stirling does give a bit of explanation about where it comes from at the end – sort of. I would have preferred either a deeper exploration of magic in Lacy’s world or have had it left alone entirely for the reader to accept as commonplace.

I had the same issue with the development of Cheyenne’s character. Lots of teenagers have to deal with parents like her – toxic, unreliable, addicts who sabotage not only their own lives but also those of their children. That’s a really tough situation to be in, and while I like that Stirling tackles this kind of relationship in her book, Cheyenne’s motivations just seem to wrap up too easily at the end. Maybe I’m expecting too much from a YA book, but I’d expect Cheyenne and Lacy’s emotional resolution to be a bit more thorny. I think I would have liked fewer attempts at justifying Cheyenne’s behavior and more exploration of Lacy’s conflicted feelings regarding her mother.

Overall, When My Heart Was Wicked is a quick read with a lot of lovely writing and food for thought, even if I did find it a little wanting in places. As this is Stirling’s debut novel, I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next!