The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
Maturity Level: 3
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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.
If you like atmospheric, brooding novels about witches toppling the patriarchy, look no further! If you’re looking for something mature and nuanced, or if you’re looking for terrifying horror, this isn’t the right book for you.
What I loved about this book was the dark, creepy atmosphere and setting. Bethel is a puritanical community in the center of an aptly named “Darkwood”. The Darkwood is almost a character of its own, full of dark magic and constantly calling to Immanuel. Those living near it dare not venture in, especially after dark. Most of the horror elements early in the novel (jump scares, mostly) stem from the influence of the Darkwood. It was delightfully creepy, but not at all scary, which was perfect for a horror-wuss like me.
I also really liked the style of writing. I read one review that referred to it as “laid-back”, which is a good description. It’s easy to see why some readers labeled it YA, because it’s written in style, pacing, and characterization in a similar way to YA fantasy. Which meant that even with a dark atmosphere, it was a fun read. But even as it is laid-back, the writing is still full of lush, brooding descriptions. It was completely unique.
And I enjoyed the basics of the plot. It was so interesting to read a Salem-esque books where witchcraft is … actually evil. So often magic is just misunderstood, or willfully vilified in order to keep people in power. In this case the witches are the enemy, but the patriarchy is too. Super different!
Where I felt this book was lacking was in the details. Honestly, it seemed like the editor didn’t give this book their full attention. Immanuel has to watch the sheep because there is no one else, except for all the times she doesn’t because plot needs to happen. The knapsack she’s never mentioned before has a full oil lamp in it right when she needs it. Books and paper are virtually non-existent in this society, but then Immanuel suddenly has loose paper and a pencil! I’m not usually a nit-picky reader, but enough details like this jumped out to bother me.
Characters, too, didn’t always get fully developed. Other than Immanuel and the Prophet, it’s not always clear what character motivations are. This especially aggravated me when it came to Ezra, the love interest, whose decisions often felt so random.
I also found the world-building could have been fleshed out more. One of my personal bookish pet peeves is when you build a society that’s reminiscent of a particular era (say, colonial America), but it’s been that way for hundreds of years. Why have they not developed new technologies or at least new fashions? Humans are always innovating and developing, and picking a setting because of the aesthetic isn’t good enough for me anymore. I wanted MORE from the why behind society being stuck, MORE from the one-dimensional bad guys, MORE from the background of the religion and it’s bizarre practices.
So, yes, I enjoyed this book. But unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I think it just depends on what you are looking for.