Book: “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson
Publishing Info: Ace, July 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received and eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: 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.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
So for the past few months some friends and I have been continuing our ‘Horror Movie Club’ that we had just started before social distancing became the name of the game. We log into Netflix and open up Netflix Party, then watch a scary movie every Tuesday. Back in May we watched “The VVitch”, one of my favorite witch movies because damn, that ending. I was the only one who had seen it, and when that ending twist came the chat exploded with glee and I basked in the (what I see as ) feminist message at the end. You intertwine witchcraft and feminism and I am totally there. So when I read the description for “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson, I immediately, IMMEDIATELY, requested it from NetGalley. I want MORE feminist witchcraft in my reading, after all.
First and foremost, it should be noted that “The Year of the Witching” is a dark fantasy, bordering on straight horror story. Horror in terms of scary imagery, but also horror in terms of the horrors of fundamentalism, misogyny, racism, and corruption. Bethel is a community that seems to take some of its inspiration from Puritanism and the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, with nods to Puritan beliefs of witch craft and the FLDS notions of a Prophet and polygamy. Citizens are kept in line with religion, and girls and women are the ones who bear the brunt of the hardships and the punishments for stepping out of place. Immanuelle is accepted by her family and mostly by the community, but is always Othered because of her mother’s ‘sin’ and because of her race. It’s far too seldom that witch stories involve Black of brown witches (with a few recent exceptions), so for Immanuelle to have the potential for magical powers and to be biracial with dark skin is pretty awesome. It also opens up the potential to not only explore misogyny in Bethel, but also misogynoir as well. The entire society is an exploration in how a society can use fear and religion to exert control and power over its members, and at the top of this is the Prophet, who leads the town and passes judgements that sometimes end in pyres where women and outsiders are burned for the sins of being women and outsiders. And while the people in Bethel are being subjectted to this, it’s very clear that they are still complicit in this system.
That isn’t to say that Henderson falls into the trap of ‘one side is completely evil and the other side is completely good’, as the witches of the Darkwood that Immanuelle is drawn to (as was her mother) are described as evangelists in their own right. Immanuelle is caught between two extremes, and has to suss out if out of reaction to one side she will swing all the way to the other side, which has its own malevolence. Henderson really figured out how to find the nuance, which we don’t always get to see in stories that have as much rage and revolution in them as “The Year of the Witching” does. Which is awesome. Instead of falling merely into rage, even if that rage is completely justified, Henderson lets Immanuelle explore other ways to proceed when it comes to the liberation of herself and the women in her life. And I loved that.
And yes, this is a very creepy tale with some really neat witch mythos inside of it. You have your usual ‘cast out women who were seeking power’ tale, but Henderson goes a little further with it, giving each witch in the coven a specific backstory, specific roles they played before and after the clash, and unique descriptors that harken to folk horror as well as body horror. I especially loved the descriptions of Lilith, aka The Mother, who is the leader and in direct opposition of The Father and what the people of Bethel believe. I don’t want to spoil her description because I really want it to to be a surprise to readers, but holy hell, it’s both something out of a nightmare and also powerful as hell.
“The Year of the Witching” is an excellent YA horror novel with a lot to say. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on it. Especially if you loved the end of “The VVitch”.
Rating 10: Spooky, angry, feminist and empowering, “The Year of the Witching” is a dark and scary tale of agency, independence, and discovering your inner power.
“The Year of the Witching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dystopias with Gender or Religion-specific Phobics”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.