This is one of those books that managed to keep showing up on social media without a big marketing campaign. I didn’t see this advertised a lot but people kept talking about it and all of them seemed to love the book. So, in time for witchy season, I decided to pick this up as well. I tend to like books that generate their own buzz because of their quality rather than books that are talked about because the publishers shove them in your face wherever you go. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when this turned out to be a really good, witchy book that thoroughly entertained me.
THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING
by Alexis Henderson
Published: Ace, 2020
Hardcover: 368 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 37 minutes
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: She was born breech, in the deep of night.
A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.
Immanuelle lives in Bethel, a rigid society ruled by the Prophet. Being a mixed-raced illegitimate child, Immanuelle has learned to keep her head down, adhere to the rules, and not dream too big. Through her eyes, we are introduced to this rather dystopian place of strict religion and basically no rights for women. In fact, men can marry several women, yet for a woman the greatest achievement she can hope for is becoming the Prophet’s wife… or rather one of his wives. Immanuelle has no such dreams. She just wants to live quietly with her remaining family and take care of her sheep.
When one day, one of her sheep runs away, she finds herself in the Darkwood, face to face with what can only be a witch! The four fabled witches who were defeated by the very first Prophet give Immanuelle a gift – her mother’s journal, which tells of terrible curses. “Blood, Blight, Darkness, Slaughter” – a line so often repeated, yet so well used in this story that it still gives me goosebumps as I write this. I won’t spoil how these curses manifest or even if they do but if you’re a reluctant reader of horror, let me assure you that while bad things happen, the worst of it is not supernatural. There are no jump scares (yes, that is totally possible in a book) and what really shocked me were things done by humans to other humans, no witchcraft needed.
I’m always fascinated by the differences between books that are called (or marketed as) feminist and books (usually older ones) that put male characters front and center and can be called sexist (I don’t want a big discussion here. Product of their time, blahblah, such books exist and the reasons don’t matter). Because this is clearly a feminist work, the women in this story are their own people, some happy with their life of submission, others not so much. But that doesn’t mean that there are no male characters or, indeed, that all male characters are bad or only there to be handsome love interests. No, the men in this story come in equally varied shapes and sizes and not just because the plot demands it. They were who they were before this story started – it’s just that now Immanuelle interacts with them and we get to see these men for who they are. That’s not the experience I’ve had with those “classic” fantasy novels with hardly any female characters in them. Other than queen, wife, whore, or witch, there isn’t much for a woman to be in those tales. And so I enjoyed this book all the more because it has lots of fantastic female characters and it also gives the men distinct personalities without reducing them to the standards that female characters were held to for so long.
The reason I’m even pondering this is Ezra, the Prophet’s son and heir who will one day become the new Prophet of Bethel and hold all the power. I came into this story with my own biases and expectations, so I immediately thought Ezra would be a spoiled brat who thinks humans are disposable playthings, women especially. But from the very beginning, he is… not. It took only a few chapters for me to utterly love this boy and the way he treats Immanuelle – not as an outcast, not as someone else’s mistake, not as someone to be avoided or feared, but simply as another person who’s doing her best. Their friendship was by far my favorite thing in this whole book, and because this book has many great things to offer, that’s saying something.
Through Immanuelle’s mother Miriam’s journal, Immanuelle learns more and more about the past and accidentally also more about witchcraft and the dark powers at work in her world. I really enjoyed the magic system – if it can be called that – and the way Immanuelle researches how to lift the curses and save her home. I really shouldn’t call it magic system because although there are certain signs that can be used and words that can be spoken, magic in this book is a wild thing, something that can’t really be controlled, something that just is. Immanuelle is also deeply aware that by even researching these things, she is committing sins herself. But she’s willing to sacrifice her own soul for the good of her people because that’s just who Immanuelle is. The people who disregard her, look down on her for her skin color or things her mother did, for her father who was burned on the pyre… she wants to save them nonetheless because she knows they are as stuck in this society as she is.
I picked this book up because it goes well with the Halloween season and I wasn’t disappointed at all. But as mentioned above, the true horror does not lie in a curse where all water suddenly turns to blood, but rather in the people holding power and how they decide to use it. It won’t come as a surprise to learn certain truths about the Prophet, the witches, and the wider world that are unsettling to Immanuelle. But although some things are a bit predictable (don’t worry, others aren’t) I can’t recall a moment in this book when I didn’t feel completely entertained, happily reading along and hoping for Immanuelle and Ezra to not only find a way to lift this curse but also to find a place in this world where they can just be happy.
The Year of the Witching is Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, so I have to say a few words about how amazing that is. Not that debut novels are always bad or incompetent, but many debut novelists make rookie mistakes, like overdrawn characters, or plot threads that you know should be working but somehow don’t. Not so in this book. The villains shift around, you can never be quite sure whom to trust, there’s so much to explore and discover that the story never gets boring, and it’s all carried by an amazing protagonist who is a Good Person but also clearly tired of being treated the way she is and watching other women treated only slightly better.
I will be on the lookout for Henderson’s next book. If she manages to deliver another beautiful slow burn friendship/romance like she did here, I’ll already be happy. But I suspect, just like in this book, she’ll have way more than that in store for us.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!