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.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace Books (July 21, 2020)
Length: 368 pages
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.