Book review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Title: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 13 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 528 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

The Once and Future Witches was my first foray into Harrow’s lyrical, poetic prose, as I haven’t read her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I don’t always have the best time with this kind of prose, I tend to either love it or hate it. But in The Once and Future Witches, I loved it and I’m very excited to read Harrow’s debut now as well!

The Once and Futute Witches is set during 1893 suffragette America, where three sisters who have been seperated by time and betrayal, meet again when a spell that makes an old tower appear in the middle of New Salem pulls them together. The three sisters end up embroiled in a quest to bring back magic that will allow women to stand up to the world that has pushed them so far down.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this beautiful book. The prose was just wonderful: so haunting and so full of imagery, it just completely envelops you. Despite the heavy detail and poetic prose, which can sometimes really slow down a book, it didn’t feel slow at all. This prose just sucked me in and I wanted to stay reading this book for hours at a time. It’s very reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s work, who has the same ability to create this delicate, beautiful language that makes you never want to leave.

One of my favourite things about this world was the history regarding the magic. In order to stay hidden, magic is passed down through “women’s things”: children’s nursery rhymes, fairytale stories, sewn into fabric. Each chapter starts with a spell, many of which will be familiar, twists on different rhymes we may have heard. Alongside these spells, there are occasional breaks for short fairytales that really help add to the sense of beauty and magic in this book, alongside a sense of darkness that comes with the original fairytales.

Are the three main characters a little one dimensional? Yes. James, the youngest sister, is the wild, uncontrollable one; Beatrice, the old crone obsessed with books and knowledge; and Agnes the beautiful warrior mother. They are a little surface level, I felt like Agnes was the only one that really got to explore her personality a bit more. She has a bit more depth as the sister who isn’t fully on board with bringing back witches, as the one who is deep set in her bitterness at the betrayal years ago, and so I found her journey more interesting than the others.

What I loved most about the characters in this book is not therefore the three sisters. Instead, it’s the small, insightful moments we get with the host of secondary characters in this world. To me, this is where the emotion and heart of this book really sang. There was such a depth of emotion in such small moments that really touched me, and really emphasised this fight to defeat the darkness of men. There’s Jeannie, the trans woman too scared to tell her friends she’s trans until the end of the book when she reveals her shorn head inflicted on her by the prison system, who clenched her fists in meetings as the women talked about the uselessness of men’s magic, when it was the only kind she knew. There’s the moment when Mr Lee, his face radiant and fierce, stands as the only barrier between Agnes and men who seek to burn her. There’s Cleo Quinn, Beatrice’s love interest, a Black journalist who in a moment of absolute power stuns you with her sharp words that the Black people living in New Cairo, her people, are always the ones to suffer most for others’ fights. It is these small moments and glimpses into these other characters lives that felt the most powerful to me.

Incidentally, it is these secondary characters lives that felt the most inclusionary and diverse as well. Without them, this book is token white feminism trying to beat down the man, the three white women tearing down structures of society with no thought to who actually gets hurt most by their actions. Which is why I wish there had been more focus on these other characters. It’s like Harrow tried to make her feminism more open and inclusive but she didn’t quite go far enough: these characters did feel a little like side offerings to the main quest of these three sisters, used to help them reach their full power and take down the villain. I wish we’d seen more importance placed on those putting themselves at risk for the sisters because these characters really were the heart and soul of this book and gave this book its most powerful moments.

But overall, I did find this book very enchanting. There is no question that Alix E. Harrow writes absolutely beautifully, in a way that makes you completely entranced in a world. I appreciate her efforts to attempt a more inclusive fight for feminism but I do feel it could have gone a lot further. The best part of this book were the small moments with the characters around the sisters, the moments where other characters got to show their world and their hopes and their dreams and why they were fighting and I wish we’d had more importance and focus placed on these (at times infinitely more) interesting characters.

Book review: The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

Title: The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

Publisher: Erewhon

Publication date: 15 September 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 400 pages

Rating:

Synopsis: An outcast teenage lesbian witch finds her coven hidden amongst the popular girls in her school, and performs some seriously badass magic in the process.

Skulking near the bottom of West High’s social pyramid, Sideways Pike lurks under the bleachers doing magic tricks for Coke bottles. As a witch, lesbian, and lifelong outsider, she’s had a hard time making friends. But when the three most popular girls pay her $40 to cast a spell at their Halloween party, Sideways gets swept into a new clique. The unholy trinity are dangerous angels, sugar-coated rattlesnakes, and now–unbelievably–Sideways’ best friends.

Together, the four bond to form a ferocious and powerful coven. They plan parties, cast curses on dudebros, try to find Sideways a girlfriend, and elude the fundamentalist witch hunters hellbent on stealing their magic. But for Sideways, the hardest part is the whole ‘having friends’ thing. Who knew that balancing human interaction with supernatural peril could be so complicated?

Rich with the urgency of feral youth, The Scapegracers explores growing up and complex female friendship with all the rage of a teenage girl. It subverts the trope of competitive mean girls and instead portrays a mercilessly supportive clique of diverse and vivid characters. It is an atmospheric, voice-driven novel of the occult, and the first of a three-book series.

The Scapegracers is a the gayest, witchiest book in the world and I loved every second of it. Whilst it is more of a slowburn plotwise, the focus on the characters and this deep connection that is formed between the four witches in the new coven was so brilliant. It completely subverts the mean girl trope and I found it one of the most refreshing and exciting portrayals of female friendship that I’ve read in a long time.

The Scapegracers follows Sideways, a lesbian witch who is invited to perform her magic at a party organised by three popular girls who want their party to be the spookiest in memory at the school. But instead of just getting a killer cool bit of magic out of it, the new coven finds friendship and support like never before. The four of them team up to help Sideways with her new crush, as well as fight off the modern day witchhunters who want to take their magic from them.

The Scapegracers is a slow book, I won’t deny it. There isn’t a clear enemy or plot across the book as you would expect from a YA fantasy novel. Instead, this book is more of an exploration of friendship with a side of fantasy as the girls investigate and try out their new powers. And whilst I wasn’t expecting that, I loved this surprise! The Scapegracers has one of the best portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever seen. Clarke has taken the trope of mean, popular school girls, and thrown everything you think about them into the bin. Here, these girls are so supportive, so badass and the way they take Sideways into their group is so incredibly beautiful and heartwarming. It’s done so well that I found myself tearing up when Sideways is just in awe that these beautiful, loving people want to be her friend because she’s so fucked up from being so alone. I also loved that these girls were allowed to embrace their femininity if they wanted and it was amazing because they can still be badass witches too? So often, YA fantasy has to feature “girls who aren’t like other girls”, ones who need to throw away their femininity in order to be cool and kick butts with magic. But The Scapegracers is just the opposite of that in every way: here are these girls who love make up, who wear tight dresses, who flirt, but can still kick butts with magic. More of this in fantasy please!

I also want to praise the casual queerness in the book which was so great to see. We have a lesbain main character, bisexual and queer side characters, and Sideways has two dads! And that leads me to my second favourite part of this book: Sideways is so. fucking. gay. She is such a clueless lesbian, it is amazing. I loved her pure awed joy when interacting with Madeline, which lead to lines like this: “Hell, if Madeline offered to beat me up, I’d probably weep with joy and give her a hearty tip when she was done” and “She wanted my number in a potentially gay way. Oh God, I wanted to die.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her, she’s such a great character who is a complete mess when she has a crush and it was so great to see.

I enjoyed the bringing of witchhunters into the modern world. Although it was only a small section, I loved finding out about the history of these witchhunters, it was so fascinating how they came to be and how they track witches. The reason I didn’t give this a full of five stars is because it did slow quite a lot, particularly in the middle of the book, when the witchhunters seemed to disappear. I think they could have been a bit more prominent to add a sense of tension and urgency to the book as they were a great, creepy villain!

All in all, I really loved this book! I’ve been having a bad run with YA fantasy this year, but because this was so different to what I expected from YA fantasy, it resulted in something so much better than I hoped for! The Scapegracers is a really lovely look at female friendships and had such a kickass group of queer witches, so much casual queerness, and a clueless lesbain crushing so bad it made for the funniest lines. Highly recommend this one!

Book review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Title: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Publisher: Ace

Publication date: 21 July 2020

Genre: Adult | Horror | Witches

Page extent: 368 pages

Rating:

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.

The witches

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.

Worldbuilding

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.

Family

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.

The ending

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!

Book review: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Title: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Publisher: Razorbill

Publication date: 28 May 2019

Genre: Young adult | Fantasy |Witches

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

This book has been on my TBR for so long, and I don’t know why I hadn’t picked it up yet but just add that to the list of reasons why I hate myself because this so good?! It’s so cute and funny, full of very fun (and very queer) relationships, all mixed up in a delicious barrel of blood magic and elemental magic which are the TWO BEST KINDS OF MAGIC. Anyway I’m mad at myself for not reading this sooner because I enjoyed this so much!

These Witches Don’t Burn follows elemental witch Hannah in the aftermath of a very bad breakup. But when Hannah starts seeing signs that a blood witch has come to town, she must team up with her ex to hunt them down because no one else believes her. Enter new hot cutie Morgan, just who Hannah needs to complicate her life more!

I’m going to start by getting my one major peeve about this book out of the way quickly: why oh why oh why oh why do so many YA books insist on plot that hinges off parents and other responsible adults making an environment so toxic and terrifying for a child that they would rather BE KILLED BY A BLOOD WITCH than talk to you about the situation?

Okay short mini rant over, onto the good stuff! I didn’t expect this to be as funny as it was (I have no idea why, maybe because I don’t really associate fantasy with humour?) But Hannah has such a great voice, she’s funny and sarcastic (my favourite form of humour) and thus I loved her. She gets so angry at her ex, I thought their relationship was perfect, it really exemplified the kind of messy awkward breakups that happen in high school. Victoria, as set up as the brooding evil ex, is obviously therefore my favourite. I mean Morgan is fine, she was a nice enough character if a little bland and lacking something defining I could talk about right now. But Victoria was just so fucking confident and powerful and kind of a little mean, but also very obviously still had feelings for Hannah which makes her vulnerable (and thus more dangerous). Which just made her such a perfect character for me!

The whole environment of this book was just very cute and very fun. The pacing was excellent, there’s lots of action, there’s lots of fires and magic and witchy coven meetings. I particularly liked the odd little bits of magic we got to see that really helped build this world up: for example, the binding rings or tattoos used to keep children from accidentally revealing their magic, to the very cool air bubble things that can be used to send messages, to more traditional witchy things like pentagrams and blood magic animal sacrifices. (Gotta love that blood magic).

This was such a fun read, I had such a great time reading it. Whilst I’m still mad that I didn’t read this earlier, it does mean I don’t have to wait for the sequel because it’s already out!

Book review: The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

Title: The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia

Publication date: 2 June 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy | Witches

Page extent: 304 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Every year on St. Walpurga’s Eve, Caldella’s Witch Queen lures a boy back to her palace. An innocent life to be sacrificed on the full moon to keep the island city from sinking.

Convinced her handsome brother is going to be taken this year, Lina Kirk enlists the help of the mysterious Thomas Lin, her secret crush, and the only boy to ever escape from the palace after winning the love of a queen. Working together they protect her brother but draw the queen’s attention.

Queen Eva cast away her heart when her sister died to save the boy she loved. Now as queen, she won’t make the same mistake. With the tide rising higher than ever before and the islander’s whispering that Eva’s magic is failing, she’s willing to sacrifice anyone if it means saving herself and her city.

When Thomas is chosen as sacrifice, Lina takes his place and the two girls are forced to spend time together as they wait for the full moon. But Lina is not at all what Eva expected, and the queen is nothing like Lina envisioned. Against their will, the two girls find themselves falling for each other. As water floods Caldella’s streets and the dark tide demands its sacrifice, they must choose who to save: themselves, each other, or the island city relying on them both.

The Dark Tide was a fun, sapphic, enemies to lovers romp of a book. I absolutely flew through it, and whilst I think every single man in this book was complete trash, the two main women were so great and their romance was lovely.

The Dark Tide is set on a small island town, Caldella, ruled by witches. Each year, the Witch Queen must sacrifice a man she loves to the Dark Tide, in order to prevent the ocean from flooding the entire island. This year, Lina thinks her brother, Finlay, will be chosen and she will do anything to stop that. She enlists the help of Thomas, the only person who has ever survived the Dark Tide, because he made the previous queen fall in love with him and she sacrificed herself instead. But when Lina and Thomas attempt to save Finlay, Thomas is chosen instead. Filled with quilt and the naivety of first love, Lina bargains herself to save Thomas and she becomes this year’s sacrifice.

The Dark Tide was such a fun read. The pacing was great and I really flew through the book because I couldn’t stop reading. There’s lots of fast paced action which really keeps the plot moving quickly. I thought the exploration of sacrifice, and the darkness brought to the story from the emphasis on love (because a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice unless a person is losing something – or in this case, someone) was terrific. It was exactly the kind of dark fantasy I love to read, there’s a constant pull between Eva’s feelings for Lina and her duty to drown Lina to save all her family and the citizens of the island under her protection. Sheer perfection thank you very much.

One of the best things about The Dark Tide were the two main characters: Lina, this year’s sacrifice and Eva, the Witch Queen. We get POV sections from both of them and whilst I loved Eva the most (hello fellow introvert who gets exhausted around people), Lina’s POV is just as good. Lina does feel very naive at times and very young, she is so obsessed with being a hero and having an epic love story that could rival the ones told in books and tales and she lives in this completely fairytale world. I really loved that slice of desire and danger she had, it took what could have been a fairly standard, bland, naive girl into someone who was much more interesting. The way she was almost happy and gleeful at times was so great and gave a touch of darkness to her POV, as she almost seemed to enjoy throwing her life away as a sacrifice because it meant she was living in one of her fairytales.

But Eva, our Witch Queen who detests people, how I love you. I love how cold and distant she is (she cut out her heart!). This contrasted with the way she is slowly fascinated and irritated by Lina in turn, it’s so fun to watch Lina get a rise out of this seemingly heartless witch. And their romance! Wow. It was so fierce and I can’t even really put into words how much I loved their relationship. The only downside was that because it is a little more of a slowburn, I didn’t get enough of the two of them together!

From my favourite characters to my least favourites: litrally every single man. God they were all complete trash and unfortunately, I did think this hindered the success of this book. For so much of this book, Lina is head over heels for Thomas….but there’s literally not a single reason why?! He’s so so bland and his only trait is he’s willing to give up women so he can live. Seems like a catch, right?

Finlay, Lina’s brother, is unfortunately just as one note. But even worse in my mind, his one note is aggression: he’s an aggressive angry person who Lina is actually scared of because he rages at the slightest thing and actually seriously injured her once in his rage….and yet Lina’s family is trying to force her to forgive him? Sorry but you do not have to forgive and love folks just because they’re family. If they’re abusive, gtfo. I detested Finlay the whole way through. But somehow Lina is willing to do everything for this person she’s scared of?

Lina’s feelings towards these two main male characters just didn’t make sense and I think the book would have been strengthened if more work had gone these two so they weren’t so one note. I think this bothered me more with Finlay than Thomas. With Thomas, I get that Lina is portrayed as this young and naive girl who wants a fairytale romance, so it makes sense that she’s drawn to the quiet, brooding boy with so much history and story behind him. I could forgive that. But I really needed to see more of her brother, see why on earth he was worth saving? He needed to be more than this awful, angry person. The way his actions were always framed as trying to make it up to Lina for breaking her ankle, when he continued to lose his temper and scare her, felt very manipulative and reminiscent of domestic abuse relationships and it’s not ever really addressed.

All in all I really enjoyed this dark YA fantasy! The sapphic romance is wonderful, I adored Eva, and found the book very easy and fun to read. Whilst the boys are very one note and I struggled with understanding why Lina was willing to give up everything for them, it just made me appreciate Eva and Lina’s relationship more because it really highlighted how full of emotion and fierce they were together.

Book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Title: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 11 February 2020

Genre: Historical | Adult

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: After a storm has killed off all the island’s men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves.

Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil.

As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials, The Mercies is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

The Mercies is an absolutely phenomenal book from the first page to the very last. It is both an incredibly detailed and well researched historical novel, and a stark and destructive picture of the brutality and devilry of human behaviour.

I’m new to Kiran Millwood Hargrave (though I do actually have another of their books on my shelf which I’ll certainly be picking up a lot sooner than anticipated!) But I’m so glad this is the novel I started with, as it is spectacular. The Mercies is inspired by the very real event of the 1617 Vardø storm, a sudden and catastrophic event which killed the majority of the men in a small fishing village in Norway. A village of newly independent women struggle between themselves for power and life in the wake of the tragedy, when to their surprise, a commissioner is brought in to lead them, a witch hunter from Scotland. He is a terrifying figure, one who works to control with his just and merciless Godly ways against “witchcraft” wielded by the indigenous peoples of Vardø.

What was most spectacular about this novel for me was the subtle and inevitable struggle between the women which results in their own downfall. The way the commissioner manipulates the women into turning on each other, destroying their friends, and becoming the despicable devils they fear, is so well done. It was so darkly written – the path to destruction was so brutally obvious and I just wanted to scream at these women to realise what was happening, despite knowing that of course there was no other way for this novel to go. It is both a story of the life of 1620 Vardø, and a depiction of the horrifying nature of humanity.

In contrast to this slow destruction is the blossoming friendship between Maren, one of the young women of the village, and Ursa, the commissioner’s innocent and unworldly wife. They are instantly besotted with one another, though of course neither realises at first, thinking their closeness and wonder of each other merely friendship. Their relationship was delicate and touching, and their love shines through even on the darkest of pages.

The Mercies is an excellently researched historical novel. The sense of setting and the life of those on Vardø is perfectly rendered, and makes for a both haunting yet enchanting setting. I was just completely enthralled.

Each and every character seemed extremely realised and considered. We have:
Maren: a young women of Vardø who is fascinated by Ursa and befriends her. She is a lonely and hurting character, destined to watch the destruction of those she loves and somehow keep living, from the brother and betrothed she lost in the storm, to her mother and Ursa.
Ursa: the young wife of the Commissioner, paid for and given away by her father to travel to the distant north and live as she has never been accustomed to before. Her delicate and nervous nature grows stronger and fiercer as her friendship and love for Maren grows.
Absalom: the terrifying Scottish Commissioner, filled with pride and undisguised glee that God’s will allows him to hunt down witches.
Dinna: destroyed and broken wife of Maren’s dead brother, trying to mother a child, and as one of the Indigenous people, forced to battle hatred and evil as those she lives with come to fear her.
Kirsten: strong and capable Kirsten who takes leadership in the village after the death of the men, who saves them from starvation, and who earns the wrath of those who wish to be in power.

The Mercies is a fabulous historical novel, showing the way fear corrupts even at the very edge of the world, a brutal and honest take at how humans can come to commit atrocities, and a beautiful and touching love story between Maren and Ursa.

Spooktober: Creatures of the Night

Welcome all to the final stop on the Spooktober express. We have reached Halloween! I wish you all a spooktacular Halloween – to celebrate, here are some popular Halloween creatures and books to go with them!

CATS

The Ninth Life – Taylor Brooke

For the past few months, The Ninth Life was known as The Unforgettable Lives of Austin Price – and its one of my most anticipated 2020 releases! Taylor has described it as:

“🌈queer non-binary MC who lived 8 past lives as CATS!!
✨portland, OR
🐶there’s a talking dog
💜complicated love triangle
🏔austin is such a soft boi
🐯life & love & grief”

The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Akirawa

Contains human owner trying to find a new home for his cat, but the cat doesn’t know why! Beautiful and heartbreaking and so much love!

Other Words for Smoke – Sarah Maria Griffin

Contains strange evil owls, fairytale like setting and a large, fluffy talking cat!

WITCHES

These Witches Don’t Burn – Isabel Sterling

Queer witches, dating and blood rituals!

The Hollow Girl – Hillary Monahan

To repay the boys that attacked her and her friend, Bethan has to collect body parts to complete a spell which will bring her friend Martyn back from the brink of death. Gruesome witchiness!

The Scapegracers – Hannah Abigail Clarke

This book is described on Goodreads as “An outcast teenage lesbian witch finds her coven hidden amongst the popular girls in her school, and performs some seriously badass magic in the process.” And it sounds epic! I am so hear for queer witches.

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska

Retelling of a Scottish fairytale! YES YES YES! (I’m Scottish so I’m incredibly excited for this!!!) Enemies to lovers, sapphic, Witchy Queen, MC sacrificing herself to save her secret crush….then falls for the enemy?! Everything about this sounds perfect!

SKELETONS/NECROMANCY

Even though necromancy could in theory be considered a part of the above witches section, I am given it it’s whole section! Because necromancy is probably my favourite type of magic and I love love love books which feature it!

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

Science fantasy! Sapphic! Enemies to lovers! Skeletons! Oh god so many skeletons!

Reign of the Fallen – Sarah Glenn Marsh

Necromancers who have to bring back the dead by walking into the “Deadlands” to retreive the souls of the dead + bisexual MC + someone starts killing necromancers…Part fantasy, part mystery!

The Bone Witch – Rin Chupeco

MC who accidentally brings her brother back from the dead at his funeral, learning she is a Bone Witch.

MERMAIDS/SEA CREATURES

Into the Drowning Deep – Mira Grant

Absolutely terrifying! Mermaids have been discovered, after they were caught on camera devouring the crew of a ship. Now a new research vessel is setting off to find them. Cue unimaginable horrors. If you missed my review of this spooktacular book yesterday, check it out here!

The Abyss Surrounds Us – Emily Skrutskie

Sea monsters! Women fighting sea monsters! Pirates! Pirates trying to use a sea monster to control the seas!

Ice Massacre – Tiana Warner

Every year, a warriers are sent to fight the mermaids. Every year, no one returns. So this year, a group of women are sent, in the hope that the mermaids luring siren power won’t work on them.

GHOSTS AND OTHER HAUNTINGS

Missing, Presumed Dead – Emma Berquist

Lexi can see ghosts. When Jane is brutally murdered, she returns as a ghost and enlists Lexi’s help to hunt down her murderer. This book is so so amazing, it’s dark and gritty and really tense, I absolutely flew through it!

The Dark In-Between – Elizabeth Hrib

When Casey reutrns from the dead, its to discover her best friend has died. When an angel falls from the sky, Casey follows the angel to a place called Limbo, which she must learn to walk between, in order to save her friend.

Unbroken – Brooklyn Ray

Okay so this is why I had to add “And other hauntings”, because I wanted to mention this book. When Michael moves into his new home, he doens’t expect it to be haunted – by a witch turned demon who likes to bake…. Cue falling in love!!!! Please give me all the queer, demon romance.

WEREWOLVES

A Curse so Dark and Lonely – Brigid Kemmerer

A retelling of Beauty and the Beast! Harper is kidnapped and wakes up in a strange land, where Prince Rhen is trying to make her fall in love with him. He’s been cursed to repeat Autumn, turning into a mindless beast at the end of every season and slaughtering his kingdom. If someone can fall in love with him, the curse will be broken.

Red Hood – Elana K. Arnold

When Bisou runs into the woods on the night of homecoming, she encounters a wolf, and somehow, manages to kill it. The next day, one of her classmates has been found in the woods. Dead. She doesn’t know if it’s her fault. Loose Red Riding Hood retelling, dark and gorey, female empowerment!

VAMPIRES

Blood Countess – Lana Popović

Okay not technically vampires, but instead “A historical YA horror novel based on the infamous real-life inspiration for Countess Dracula”. This inspiration is Elizabeth Báthory, who has the title of most prolific female serial killer ever….I have chills just thinking about this book!

The Beautiful – Renée Ahdieh

The glitz and glamour of vampires in New Orleans! Serial killings, murder mystery and falling in love with a monster.

The Deathless Girls – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Vampire brides of Dracula is all I’ll say!

***

Happy Halloween! With this post I have reached the last of my Spooktober posts. I hope you have enjoyed this spooktacular last week of October! I’ll be a little less around during November, as I’m aiming to do NaNoWriMo, and get some of my angsty bisexual pirate book written! If you’d like to keep up with my writing progress, follow me on Twitter, that’s probably where I will be most! Might even tweet a line or two from the book as I go (pending I have any lines I like enough…)

Finally, what’s your favourite Halloweeny book? Let me know in the comments below!

Paws out,
Rach + Draco