Book: “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith
Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: The Last Magician meets The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy in this thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy following a young woman who discovers she has magical powers and is thrust into a battle between witches and wizards.
In 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet—her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.
Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined?
Review: I am now at that age where if someone asks me what I want for my birthday or the holidays, more often than not I think ‘ah crap’. Given that one of my biggest hobbies is reading, one might think that books are always an option, but more often than not I just use the library, especially since I work for one. But I keep a few in mind, especially for my husband, so this past November when he asked for birthday ideas I told him “The Witch Haven” by Sasha Peyton Smith. I’d seen it bumping around my social media feeds on and off, and on top of that it is not only a mysterious boarding school story, it also has witches! And you know me, I’m always down for some teenage coven shenanigans!
I should definitely say right away that “The Witch Haven” is more of a YA Urban Historical Fantasy, a genre that isn’t usually my wheelhouse, especially on the blog. But I figured that witches, being one of my faves, was fair-ish game, and while the genre tropes constrained it a bit (for me at least), overall I enjoyed this book. Firstly, I really enjoyed the time and place. We find ourselves in 1911, and in New York City, so the time period is one that I’m not as familiar with books wise. This post Gilded Age, solidly Progressive Era timeframe makes for interesting themes and historical footnotes, and I felt that Smith used these to her advantage. We both address the constraints of women during this time, be it the factory work that many had to endure (and yes, there are references to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), the Suffrage Movement, and the way that men, even in magical settings, are constantly trying to hold them back and take their power. Sometimes literally. Frances, our protagonist, is whisked away to Haxahaven School because her powers manifested after she was attacked by her boss at the shop she works at as a seamstress, and the mythology of Haxahaven and the way witches are seen and function in historical New York City is unique and entertaining.
I also appreciated that Smith doesn’t look back at every element of this time period as rosy when it comes to progressive ideas, nor does she paint Haxahaven School as a super positive and supportive ‘yasss queen’ institution (though the friendships that Frances makes there are VERY positive and show a supportive and feminist group of women). This is most revealing when it comes to Frances’s roommate and close friend Lena. The girls who attend Haxahaven are plucked from their lives and taken to the school to learn how to control their magic and to become witches who can harness their powers, even if that means sometimes stifling them. For Lena, however, it is not an empowering place, as she is Indigenous, and longs to return to her family and her community. I liked that Smith had Lena in this story for a couple of reasons. The first is that it shows that the feminism of this time period was reserved for white women only, and that women like Lena were ignored or abused because of their race. It also was a way to address the Boarding Schools for Indigenous children in this country during this time period (as Lena was taken from a boarding school to attend Haxahaven), and how it was a tenant of genocide that our government was committing against Natives. I can’t speak to whether Smith did her due diligence when it comes to telling Lena’s story, but I liked that the broader themes of this story were told.
But there were some stumbles along the way in “The Witch Haven”. For one, the pacing feels a little off. It has a lot of fast paced plotting at the beginning, but we get a little bogged down as Frances and her friends make connections with Finn, a young man who is a magic student at a male institution. It ramps up again once we get to the last third of the book, but it slogs a bit as Frances interacts with Finn in hopes of learning some of his magic to find out what happened to her murdered brother William. I think that part of the problem is that I didn’t really care for Frances as a character, so therefore her story and her journey didn’t keep me as interested when we needed that exposition. I think my biggest issue with her is that she is purely defined by her brother’s death and wanting to solve what happened, with little other interesting character traits. I also found her decisions to be unclear, like why she is so suspicious of the people she is living with and learning with, but more than happy to trust Finn and the people he is allied with without any questions. It just felt like her character development was less for her and more to progress the plot.
All that said, the ending is a bit open ended, and my interest was piqued enough by it that should Smith write a sequel I would probably pick it up, just to see what happens next. “The Witch Haven” didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but it was fine for what it was.
Rating 6: Though the pacing is a little off at times and the main character a bit grating, overall “The Witch Haven” has a fun setting that lets witches shine, albeit with complexities of the time period.