Michael F. Stewart
Publication date: August 14, 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
The Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the lair of an adolescent psych ward.
Milly’s evil stepmother commits her to a pediatric psych ward. That’s just what the wolf wants. With bunk mates like Red, who’s spiraling out of control; Pig, a fire-bug who claims Milly as her own—but just wants extra dessert—Vanet, a manic teen masquerading as a fairy godmother with wish-granting powers as likely to kill as to help; and the mysterious Wolfgang, rumored to roam for blood at night; it doesn’t take long for Milly to realize that only her dead mother’s book of tales can save her.
But Milly’s spells of protection weaken as her wolf stalks the hospital corridors. The ward’s a Dark Wood, and she’s not alone. As her power crumbles, she must let go of her magic and discover new weapons if she is to transform from hunted to hunter.
I received a free copy of this book from Xpresso Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the review copy!
Counting Wolves was a pleasant surprise for me. When I requested an ARC of the book, I was anticipating a dark fairy tale set in a creepy psych ward with sadistic nurses and tormented teenagers who aren’t crazy but can’t convince anyone of that fact. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved a book like that, but I ended up loving what Stewart actually delivered – a look at mental illness and recovery through the lens of a fairy tale – even more.
Fifteen-year-old Milly Malone, the book’s protagonist, knows that fairy tales are more than mere stories – after all, she’s being stalked by a creature from one of the tales, a ravenous wolf that’s out for her blood. The only way to keep the wolf at bay is a magic spell, which requires Milly to count to 100 every time she wants to speak, enter a doorway, take a bite of food, etc. Although Milly knows the spell’s necessary to keep herself and her loved ones safe from the wolf, no one else understands her motivations, and she ultimately finds herself locked away in a pediatric psychiatric ward.
Stewart does a fantastic job of imbuing his novel with symbolism, and the role fairy tales play in Counting Wolves is one of the things that appeals to me most about this book. Milly’s mother raised her on these tales as a way to teach her important lessons, and so fairy tales are how Milly views the world. There are myriad references to these stories – “What big teeth you have, Doctor” – and several of the fables Milly’s read over the years are interspersed throughout the book. The people she meets in the ward are the embodiment of various stories, like the comatose “Sleeping Beauty,” and it’s fascinating to see all of the fairy tale threads woven into the tapestry of this novel.
“This is how every fairy tale starts. With the storyteller explaining to the reader just how it is. There once was a girl named Milly who was the wolf’s coveted meal. Whose father left her in the clutches of an evil stepmother. Whose stepmother imprisoned her with monsters.”
At first, Milly’s compulsions are exasperating to read about, in that waiting for her to count all the time can be frustrating and tedious. Her counting consumes her and alienates her from everyone, including the reader. After a while, though, as I grew used to Milly and more information was uncovered about the root of her battle with the wolf, I found myself less annoyed and more intrigued/sympathetic. I was especially enthralled by the sections of the story that focus on Milly’s respective relationships with her deceased mother and new stepmother.
I really appreciate how Stewart approaches mental illness in this book. As much fun as I admittedly have reading psychological thrillers and books about eerie asylums, it’s gratifying to see a positive portrayal of mental healthcare. It’s so rewarding to watch Milly gain strength and courage and to watch her personality emerge once she stops letting her fears define her. The progression of her treatment strikes me as believable and realistic, though I’m not an expert and can’t say for sure.
One of the only negatives about this book for me was Milly’s fellow patients. It’s not that they’re poorly written; it’s just that I didn’t really connect with them. They’re very intense, and while they’re memorable, they’re not especially likable. The times when they exhibit endearing traits are overshadowed by really bizarre, off-putting behavior, like masturbating in plain view or mentioning that they once slit a goat’s throat as part of a Satanic ritual. The characters did grow on me a bit by the end of the novel, but I still wouldn’t say that I felt comfortable around them.
That aside, I greatly enjoyed Counting Wolves and will likely seek out more of Stewart’s work. While this story wasn’t the dark, twisty psychological thriller I originally anticipated, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve read those kinds of books before and will almost certainly read them again, but I haven’t come across many books about mental illness that use fairy tale symbolism effectively.
Michael F. Stewart is winner of both the 2015 Claymore Award and the 2014 inaugural Creation of Stories Award for best YA novel at the Toronto International Book Fair.
He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. In addition to his award winning Assured Destruction series, he has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights are published by Scholastic and early readers are out with Pearson Education.
For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS–a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next.
Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s first Writer in Residence. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.
Michael is represented by Talcott Notch.