The Year of the Witching
Alexis Henderson

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!! I love witches and I love dark fantasies, so it seemed appropriate to mark my very favorite holiday with a review of a book that has both, even though I read it in August.

The Year of the Witching is a dark fantasy set in a puritanical land called Bethel, where the people are governed by an all-powerful Prophet and witches are both real and feared. The story follows Immanuelle Moore, orphaned daughter of a suspected witch, who is distrusted by her fellow citizens on account of her skin color as much as her mother’s crimes. Her father was burned at the stake before she was born; her mother died giving birth to her. The only family she knows are her maternal grandfather and his two wives, and the two young daughters born to his second wife. (I suppose that technically makes them Immanuelle’s aunts, since they would be her mother’s half-sisters, but we won’t quibble over genealogy.) Stained by her neighbors’ collective memory of her mother’s attempt to murder the Prophet, Immanuelle tries to lead a blameless life but is repeatedly tempted to enter the Darkwood, the ominous forest next door to her house. Despite her maternal grandmother’s warnings, she is lured into the Darkwood by a coven of witches, who use her to kick off a series of plagues. Horror-struck at the destruction the witches have wrought through her blood, Immanuelle sets out to stop them, assisted by Ezra, the Prophet’s son and heir. Along the way she discovers dark powers of her own, connects with the paternal grandmother she’s never known, and realizes the full extent of the Prophet’s sinful corruption.

I loved this book – not just because it has witches in it, though that certainly doesn’t hurt, but because it is indisputably Immanuelle’s story from start to finish. She is the heroine. She’s smart, feisty, and tough, and she doesn’t hesitate to call out her peers on their bullshit.

“Pity,” said Judith, leveling her gaze. “I was hoping there was something remarkable about you. Considering.”

Immanuelle stiffened. “Considering what?”

Judith arched a perfect brow and a cruel smile played over her lips. “Well, your mother, of course.”

Immanuelle had known the mention of her mother was coming. It always did. But something about the way Judith said it now doubled the insult, making it sting more than usual.

For a long moment there was silence, save for the babbling of the river and the drone of the wasps lurking among the wildflowers. Even the distant chatter of the other churchgoers seemed to quiet, lost to the rush of the wind in the woodland. Then…

“You know,” said Immanuelle. “Now that I consider it…I do have a knack for dancing naked in the woods—with the beasts and devils, of course. It’s hard to find the time, what with all the sheep I shepherd, but when the full moon rises, I do what I can.” She smiled brightly at Judith. “Like mother, like daughter, I suppose.”

Obviously all my usual objections about romance stand here as much as in every other book I’ve read that has included a romance of some kind, but I do like that Ezra always has Immanuelle’s back. Judith is of course offended by Immanuelle’s remark but Ezra finds it funny, and, because he is the Prophet’s son, all the rest of their group laugh along with him. And yet, even though he helps her in every way he can, she doesn’t get overshadowed by him. He plays a supporting role all the way through, which is good because he’s not that exciting. Immanuelle, on the other hand, is an excellent protagonist. She is strong without being boring, powerful without being corrupt. Even when offered the chance to execute the Prophet for the various crimes he’s committed against herself, her family, and her friends, she shows him mercy. (Personally I thought it wouldn’t have diminished the story any if she’d knifed him, but that’s just me.) And, in the end, she sets the tone for the new Bethel, a Bethel that won’t burn people at the stake.

Immanuelle turned to study the faces in the crowd—Anna and Honor, Martha and Glory, Vera and Ezra, people from the Glades and the Holy Grounds and the Outskirts alike. What she did, she did for them, for all of Bethel, for the dream of making their home something better than it was, so that those who followed in their footsteps would never know the heat of a pyre, or the pain of its flames.

A world without killings or cruelty: That was the fate she wanted.

And it was the fate she would have.

Turning to face the pews in full, Immanuelle dropped the blade, and it struck the floor with a clatter that echoed through the cathedral. “Today, we choose mercy.”

The flock answered her as one. “Now and forevermore.”

I’m not good at turning away from vengeance myself, particularly not when it’s served up on a platter, but it’s an ability I tend to admire in others; and, given the violence that has already haunted Bethel’s history, I have no doubt that Immanuelle made the right decision.

My biggest complaint, aside from the romance, is that I really wish we’d gotten to know Vera Ward (Immanuelle’s badass paternal grandmother) better than we did. Following the murder of her son, Vera fled Bethel – which was, in itself, no mean feat – and made a life for herself outside its borders, and, when Immanuelle meets her, is living with her girlfriend in a really nice cottage. I’m glad she came back to Bethel for Immanuelle and I hope they’ll be able to establish a close relationship in the years to come, but I wish we’d seen more of her because she’s really cool and she gives Immanuelle possibly the best advice she ever receives:

Vera’s gaze softened. “If you want to end those plagues, you’re going to have to embrace yourself, all of yourself. Not just the virtues the Church has told you to value. The ugly parts too. Especially the ugly parts. The rage, the greed, the carnality, the temptation, the hunger, the violence, the wickedness. A blood sacrifice won’t mean much if you can’t control the power it affords you.”

Thank you, Vera. ❤️ If there’s a sequel, I really hope we’ll see you in it.