Sarah Flannery Murphy showed in her first two books her capacity to take a speculative premise and use it illuminate real world issues. In The Possessions, her protagonist had the capacity to channel the lives of the dead and Girl One revolved around a group of young women with extraordinary powers. In both cases, what makes these books shine is not the premise itself but the way in which Murphy uses it to deeply explore the lives of her characters who, despite any powers, still have to live in the world. In The Wonder State she does this again, delivering a coming-of-age story coupled with a story of paths not taken all wrapped up in a supernaturally-driven mystery.
It is 2015 and Jay finds herself back in the small Ozark town of Eternal Springs that she fled fifteen years before. Jay has been drawn back by a photograph and a terse message from her childhood friend Brandi Addams. But she arrives to find that Brandi has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Soon the other members of their former gang also reappear, drawn back by similar messages and forced to stay by a strange wound that will only stop bleeding when they are in the town. The narrative then interleaves the story of how the group came together, the magic that they discovered in the town and the present-day story in which they visit those teenage haunts in an attempt to discover what happened to Brandi.
As with both The Possessions and Girl One, Murphy takes a fairly common fantasy trope and deploys it in her own particular style. In the case of The Wonder State it is partly the magical place – certain locations that have specific, defined qualities and powers – but also the idea of the portal, a magical doorway into a possible otherworld. And through her characters Murphy explores how people might engage with those powers as teenagers, in particular the consequences of a more immature, unthinking approach, and the differences then in exploiting those powers as adults.
But the centre of The Wonder State is Jay’s coming-of-age story, the events that led to her leaving Eternal Springs and the reconsideration of her life that she is forced to do on her return. Murphy captures both the intense friendship between Jay and Brandi but also the forces that pull at that relationship, including the attraction of other people, their naivete and their powerlessness in the face of abusive adults. She then uses Jay’s reunion with her old crew and a rediscovery of the magic that brought them together to reflect on that time and how they have either changed or not changed since.
The Wonder State is another engaging speculative fiction novel from Murphy with a fascinating magic system, full of complex characters and atmospherically capturing the Ozark community and landscape in which they find themselves.