Book Review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Ace Books (July 21, 2020)

Length: 368 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I confess, when I went into The Year of the Witching, my expectations were pretty high. This debut by Alexis Henderson had already drawn comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale and other highly acclaimed TV shows and movies like Salem and The VViwtch, and I mean, those are some mighty big standards to live up to. Perhaps that’s why I finished the book with some mixed feelings, though in the end I felt this was a solid effort for the author’s first novel.

The story follows sixteen-year-old Immanuelle who hails from a shepherding family in the small isolated village of Bethel. Here, the people live in a closely-knit but insular community, following the word of the Father. Their leader is the Prophet, who is the head of both the church and government, enforcing a body of strict rules and laws based on the Holy Protocol.

Still, the problem for Immanuelle is that her very existence is anathema to everything her society stands for. The product of her mother’s scandalous union with an outsider, our protagonist had been branded an interloper the moment she was born. Raised by her grandparents, Immanuelle was brought up to worship the Father, follow the Holy Laws, and swear obedience to the Prophet, though it’s not as if she had much of a choice, as anyone who strays from this path are punished severely.

But then one day, on the way home from the market, Immanuelle accidentally wanders into the forbidden woods surrounding the village, which are said to be filled with dark magic and evil spirits. After a terrifying encounter with witches, a curse is unleashed upon Bethel, putting everyone in it in grave danger. Fortunately, a most unlikely ally comes in the form Ezra, the Prophet’s son, and together he and Immanuelle try to save their home and those they love.

No doubt about it, the greatest strength of The Year of the Witching is its spooky and oppressive atmosphere. I loved Henderson’s handling of the setting, with the highlights being life in the village of Bethel as well as the horror of the surrounding woods. The story is also written in a style that feels vaguely old-timey but is nonetheless very readable. In fact, its label of adult fantasy notwithstanding, the novel feels distinctly YA at times, mostly likely due to the age of the main characters and the way certain plot elements are handled, such as the romance.

Regarding the themes though, they’re admittedly a bit pedestrian and familiar, speaking as someone who reads a fair bit of feminist fantasy. Bethel’s society is puritanical and patriarchal, the women having little to no say in the running of things. Predictably, the male leaders who are supposedly the most pious of them all are in fact the most hypocritical and corrupt. The plot also followed a similar trajectory as many of these kinds of stories, so there were no big surprises there.

In addition, I thought characterization was slightly lackluster. Henderson’s rich prose is something of a double-edged sword in that regard, with much of the emphasis on the artistry of the writing which sacrificed creativity of the plot and authenticity of the characters. Immanuelle didn’t have much of a personality beyond what her role called for, and Ezra fared even worse, coming off as bland and ultimately forgettable. As I alluded to before, their love story felt scripted and not very convincing, reminding me of the way some YA romances are included not because they are really needed, but because they are what genre conventions call for.

All in all, it is clear that Alexis Henderson has a lot of talent and skill, though balancing that with original storytelling and interesting characters will likely come with more experience. At the end of the day, while The Year of the Witching was not entirely what I expected, I still thought it was a well-crafted debut and hopefully the author will have future projects because I’m looking forward to see how her work will continue to grow.

19 Comments on “Book Review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson”

  1. The premise sounds intriguing, but your review makes me think this was more an… exercise in writing (for lack of a better definition) rather than in storytelling, which might indeed rob the novel of its main strength…
    Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I liked this more than you did, but I agree, the atmosphere was definitely the best thing about the book. I was surprised to find out there’s going to be a sequel!

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  3. Glad to hear you see potential in the author’s future even if this one didn’t work quite as well as you’d like. The comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale reminds me I still need to read that one.

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    • I definitely think the author has a bright future in writing ahead of her, her prose is just gorgeous. I would love to see what else she does…apparently though, as Tammy stated above, she’s working on a sequel!

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  4. I love the sound of the atmosphere. Sorry to hear it wasn’t a little more satisfying, but it definitely sounds like an author with lots of potential and I can see maybe getting this one.

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  5. Sorry this one was a little bit of a let down for you. I remember how much you were looking forward to this one. Hope your next read better matches your expectations. 🙂

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  6. I’ve seen a few good reviews of this book recently but, if it feels YA, I’m not interested. I am really struggling with YA books at the moment, I can’t connect to the main characters and it frustrate me a bit… Maybe I will be able to go back to it one day but for now, I can’t haha. I’m sorry it didn’t meet your expectations!

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  7. Hmm… it sounds like it could be promising but I think some of the stuff you pointed out wouldn’t work for me either, like the old-timey feel of the writing, unconvincing romance, and bland protag, but it also seems to be atmospheric and the quick summary of it you gave makes me curious. I’ll borrow this one from the library if I end up reading it.

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  8. Damn, another book that didn’t quite work out. I was so close to grabbing a copy of this, anything with ‘witch’ in the title usually pulls me in, but I know I have some serious catching up to do so was trying to behave.
    Lynn 😀

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  9. Pingback: Bookshelf Roundup 08/08/20: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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