Title: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
Publication date: 21 July 2020
Genre: Adult | Horror | Witches
Page extent: 368 pages
Goodreads blurb: 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.
Content warnings: blood, animal death, ritualistic animal sacrifice, self-harm, rape, paedophilia, child abuse, domestic abuse, starvation, death, gore, dead bodies, misogyny, racism
Welcome to spooksville, population one coven of terrifying witches threatening to destroy a community of sexist menfolk! The Year of the Witching was one of my most anticipated books of the year, promising all of the dark, spooky, filled with blood and gore magic that I desired, and it definitely lived up to my expectations! Combining the kind of puritan society seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the dark blood magic seen in horror brings a wonderful (and very dark) witchy book to our shelves. Like seriously. It’s so fucking witchy.
The Year of the Witching is set in Bethel, a small community barred to outsiders. There, they are led by the church of The Father, with a Prophet and his apostles who look after their Bethelen flock. But all is not well: in this society, women are treated as cattle, carved with a symbol of marriage on their foreheads, Outsiders who skirt the borders of Bethel are treated with disgust and disdain, and Immanuelle, who’s mother attempted to kill the Prophet himself, is desperately trying to live a life without sin to avoid others claiming she’s a witch thanks to her mother’s blood. But then Immanuelle ends up in the dangerous woods by accident, where she sees some strange witches cavorting together and now four plagues have come upon the town and Immanuelle will do everything in her power to stop it.
The list of things I loved about this book is huge so let’s just dive straight in because this review is likely going to be biiiiiiig.
Oh my god the witches!! They were just amazing. I loved everything to do with them, from Lilith with her stag head, to the sigils used to carve curses, to the extracts from Immanuelle’s mother’s diary. The four witches are just thrillingy creepy. Can you actually imagine how terrifying a female body with the skull of a stag would be?! The way the other witches are described is just as terrifying: each of them are quite clearly dead, bodies brokenly moving and twitching, eyes dead and staring, I thought they were expertly detailed to be as scary as possible.
And the four plagues these witches brought were so much fucking fun!! (Yes I realise I’m saying four world destroying plagues were FUN but that is why we read HORROR). These plagues were just so dark and creepy, water turning to blood, the blight making people smash their own heads against walls?! But it was so interesting to explore how these plagues actually impacted the day to day lives of people. Usually we see the world sort of stop and everyone panics (which, to be fair, does seem to be the way humans would react given *gestures to coronavirus*) But I liked that this book took a different approach, here we saw everyone needing to get on with life and do their best – it explored what actually would happen if all the water turned to blood. From the crops failing, to animals dying of thirst, to stored reservoirs of water, to using the rain, I just found it really interesting to explore how people were getting on with life in a plague as opposed to seeing the usual sense of despair and panic.
The history and worldbuilding is so detailed and in-depth and just absolutely fascinating. I really love books about puritanical societies that actually delve into how the society got there and why they act the way they do. I find it fascinating to explore how humans can come to do such terrible things, what actually takes a society from what we know to something so much worse, it’s why I love books that explore villainy. And The Year of the Witching gave us so much backstory to Bethel, how it came to be, the religion that started the war between the witches and Bethel. I adore SFF books with religion, and I loved it even more than usual in The Year of the Witching. Like all books about puritanical societies, plagues, end of the world dystopias, they feel particularly scary in the current world climate. The essence of misogyny that runs deep through Bethel’s community, the way the community targets women and girls and uses them to give themselves power is just terrifyingly good. That sliver of pure evil throughout just fills me with so much rage and anger, and I love books that just overtake my emotions like that.
The unexpected romance
Ezra and Immanuelle?! I didn’t expect there to be a hint of romance in the book but it was so lovely and unexpected. I loved that they were both such loyal friends first and foremost, before romance. Their loyalty and strength is really magical to read about. Every time they’re on page together there is such a beautiful sense of friendship before anything. It’s like these two teens are faced with such evil and horrors in the rest of their lives but then with each other they just have this sweetness and innocence which I loved.
I really liked Immanuelle’s close relationship to her family, particularly the love she and her grandfather have. He doesn’t spend much time on page, but I really felt every moment he was because there is so much emotion in his pages. I very much appreciated the importance put on familial love in this book. Despite the flaws of Immanuelle’s family (hi Martha and your punishment), they still have so much love and support for each other? Martha and Anna and Abram clearly have so much love for their children. It would have been so easy to turn Immanuelle’s family against her, for them to be as evil at heart at The Prophet and his apostles, but they had such strength and love for each other that was really nice to see in this very dark book. Even when looking at the other families, there is such a strong connection beween Ezra and his mother Esther, between Leah and her unborn child, between Vera and Sage. It brought a lightness and comfort to a very dark book.
Please note, the following paragraph has some spoilers for the ending so skip ahead to past the nachos if you don’t want to know about it! I wanted to talk about the ending because it’s the reason I didn’t give this a full five stars.
However, I actually think it could’ve been a touch more dark. I KNOW, I’m the worst. It just felt a little incomplete, like we were just waiting for Immanuelle to say fuck this shit and blast everyone. And I think it would have been really interesting to see her descent into darkness. It’s a book about overthrowing a society and building from the ground up. Except for a person who spends the whole book wanting to change things, when she gets the chance, she says nah actually I’ll let the Prophet remain in charge and keep carving girls thanks? The ending (the epilogue in particular where it talks about what has actually happened since the events of the book), just felt a bit like a different story. I wanted dark Immanuelle. And if she wasn’t willing to be dark, I at least wanted her to overthrow the society and make some change. What was the point of everything then?
Okay spoilers over.
Please don’t take that to mean I don’t love it! Because I really enjoyed this book. I had an absolute ball reading it, it’s by far the most engaged I’ve felt in a book in a little while. The worldbuilding and religion was so interesting and detailed and I loved exploring these four very dead, creepy witches!