The Year of the Witching
by Alexis Henderson
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy.
The daughter of a union with an outsider that cast her once-proud family into disgrace, Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol and lead a life of submission, devotion and absolute conformity, like all the women in the settlement.
But a chance mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood that surrounds Bethel – a place where the first prophet once pursued and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still walking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the diary of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by 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 realises the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her . . .
I received an eARC of The Year of the Witching from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
If I was going to pitch this story the way so many stories are pitched these days, I’d say it’s the Salem Witch Trials meets The Village—if The Village was good.
The community of Bethel live in what is essentially a religious cult, ruled over by the Prophet whose word is law. The people are warned against the evils of the Darkwood, where witches dwell, but when Immanuelle Moore ventures into the woods one evening she accidentally awakens a curse that’s been years in the making.
I love the aesthetics of this story. I could see the way the characters dress and live so clearly in my head, and I feel like this is the kind of book that could be turned into such a satisfying horror film for the aesthetics alone. If you love stories about cults or stories set in 17th century North America, I think you’d enjoy this one, too.
The Year of the Witching is a very quick and easy read; it took me a little longer to read than I would have liked because my copy from NetGalley was badly formatted and missed out the first few words from every chapter, so I ended up waiting a while for the hard copy I ordered to arrive (because screw it, I might as well support an author with my money when their debut year is this hell year). Once I got back into it, though, I sped through it in two evenings.
That being said, the story felt like it passed too quickly. It started out very strong for me, but the book as a whole was rather rushed. Immanuelle often came to convenient realisations to move the plot forward, but they were described through ‘suddenly, she realised’ moments instead of being revealed through the narrative in such a way that we felt like we were unfurling the mystery with Immanuelle. In fact when Immanuelle had her ‘suddenly, she realised’ moments I’d often already figured out what was going on.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I’ll always defend being able to work out what’s going on in a novel because it means the authors have dropped the right clues – but it happened so often in The Year of the Witching that I sometimes felt frustrated with Immanuelle because I thought she should have reached certain conclusions much sooner than she did.
Characters would also often discuss something, only for the meaning behind their conversation to be unnecessarily overexplained in two or three paragraphs of description, which left me sometimes feeling a little beaten over the head with the points Henderson was making. Essentially I think it’s fairly easy to tell this is a debut, but it’s also clear that Henderson has a lot of potential and I look forward to reading more from her in future.
Oddly, 2020 seems to be a year of me reading adult SFF that feels like YA. The Year of the Witching is intended as an adult novel, and is marketed as an adult novel with YA crossover, but for me it feels like a YA novel, and I think a lot of that comes down to the quick pacing and how the story feels more plot-heavy than character-heavy towards the end. It races to the end and while that works for some novels, for a horror novel with cult vibes I expected it to move much slower than it does. The final conflict, in particular, was too rushed for me and I didn’t get as many answers about the world and the witches as I wanted, but these could be answers that are revealed in the sequel.
Speaking of the witches, I did like that it isn’t the typical witchcraft we see in this novel, with grimoires and spells. Instead the magic in The Year of the Witching focuses on sigils, which makes a lot of sense historically; if you ever find yourself exploring an old manor house in the UK, especially one that’s been around since the 16th century, you should have a snoop around the fireplace to see if you can see any witch marks.
I must admit, though, that I almost wish this novel hadn’t involved witches at all. I know. Sacrilegious. (Especially from me; I love witch stories.)
Had this novel just been about a young woman learning the truth about the cult she’s been raised in, I think I would have found it a lot creepier. Especially because we don’t see very much of the witches of the Darkwood at all so they didn’t have much of a ‘stage presence’ for me. What I’m realising about this novel as I write this review is that, for me, the fantasy elements took over everything else a little too much.
I wanted a slow-moving, quiet, creepy novel about a woman raised in a religious cult with some witchy vibes, and I think if there had been a bit less of a focus on the magic and the curse there would have been more time for the characters to breathe and feel like fully fleshed-out characters.
I feel like I’m writing a very negative review and I hate that because I did ultimately enjoy this novel, I just didn’t love it as much as I expected to and that makes me so sad. There’s so much potential in this novel!
I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on whatever Henderson releases next, though, and when the sequel for this novel is released I will be giving it a chance.