She was their curse made flesh, and everything – the blood and the blight, the darkness and slaughter to come – it was all within her.
If I made a shelf of ‘books that make me want to burn the world down and rebuild from the ashes’, this would be first on the shelf – and it would be in good company. This book gave me a similar emotional response as The Grace Year, which was one of my top books of 2019. The Year of the Witching sounded so good that I ordered the hardback before I’d even read my review copy – and I’m glad I did, because this gorgeous hardback belongs on my shelves.
Rating: 4.5 stars!
Thanks to Bantam Press for the review copy of this book, this hasn’t impacted my honest review.
Trigger Warnings: misogyny, misogynistic slurs, branding, racism, persecution, pedophilia, coercive control, death.
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.
What did I think?
I kept seeing The Year of the Witching advertised as a dark feminist story, and Alexis Henderson absolutely nailed that. It wasn’t the kind of dark that I usually go for, but I liked that. The Year of the Witching didn’t scare me, it empowered me. I honestly read the epilogue with tears in my eyes and a fire in my heart. Cliche? Sure, but I wanted to overthrow the patriarchy and rebuild.
The religious horror in this book included all the story beats I expected for a book featuring witch burnings, but at the same time it was so much worse than I could have anticipated. A lot of the trigger warnings in this book stem from the Prophet and the hyper-religious attitudes towards women. The women in Bethel are property to be handed from father to husband with little agency. Women are chosen as wives, and those married to the Prophet get a symbol carved into their forehead to prove it. Their role is homemaker and child-bearer and men can marry as many women as they want – while women are burned at the pyre for unfaithfulness. The way that Immanuelle and the other women in this book are treated is a misery to watch. By the time the plagues hit, I was rooting for the witches. But Immanuelle made a fascinating protagonist – and a much better person than I am! It turns out I have such a soft spot for infinitely powerful women who choose to Be Good instead of burning the world to the ground with their phenomenal cosmic powers (though for real catch me writing fanfic of Immanuelle heading a coven of witches and spreading plague).
The settings are as glorious and vividly described as they are terrible, and I could so clearly imagine Bethel wrapped in the Darkwood and the insular society that that kind of isolation would build, with the added benefit that no matter how awfully characters behaved, it never seemed outlandish or impossible. I adore horror that hammers home that people are far more dangerous and terrifying than any paranormal influence, and there’s no better setting for that then trapped-in-the-community. I kind of want to know what the world beyond the woods is really like, in the heathen cities, because it felt like Bethel was trapped in history and religious fanaticism.
The most beautiful part of this, to me, was the juxtaposition of the dark, evil actions of Bethel’s men and the Darkwood against Immanuelle’s fierce sense of right and wrong and the pure love she has for everyone around her. I absolutely adore Immanuelle, and I feel like with the right motivation she could do literally anything. It made it so easy to root for her, and left me finishing the book with a feeling of hope despite the darkness in the last part of the story.
Add it on Goodreads here!