Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!   

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Spies”

The episode starts with a reminder that “The Gobblers” are kidnapping children—and keeping them in nets, cages and locked rooms—and have been discreet, until the Gyptians started to track their movements. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter abuses her connections with the Magisterium in order to find Lyra. And, it’s obvious that while Mrs. Coulter wants Lyra back, she’s doing it in a way which presents her in a way everyone can see why Lyra ran away from her in the first place. 

            Lyra Belaqua is rescued and taken into the care by the Gyptians. They have connections to Lord Asriel and are planning to rescue the missing children—as soon as they discover where they are being kept. It is during her stay with them that Lyra learns more about her origins and the alethiometer. Her reaction to the truth about her parents is believable and appropriate. Mrs. Coulter’s reaction to Lyra running away from her is not. Even the Magisterium is horrified by what Mrs. Coulter does in order to find her. It seems that it’s not only the alethiometer that the Magisterium has aversions against. 

            The Gyptians are willing to do more to figure out what’s going on with the missing children than the authorities. They have a plan—and allies—waiting to be carried out. Two of the Gyptians decide that having concrete evidence is better than traveling on gossip, so they continue their investigation against orders. At this point, it’s clear that the Magisterium is involved, but as to the how and the why, viewers will have to wait and see. 

            In our world, Lord Carlo Boreal—the man who works with the Magisterium—continues his search into the identity and the mystery of Dr. Stanislaus Grumman and whether or not he managed to “crossover” from one world to another, a theory Lord Asriel insists is the truth. The results his informer uncovers is interesting and shocking. This scene is essential to the plot of the story because it delves more into the idea of “other worlds” and why it remains a mystery to everyone. Book readers will know exactly what I’m getting at, but that’s all I’ll say, for now.  

            The Spies is the episode in which the plots in London wrap up and the story and the characters travel to the North to rescue the children and to learn why they were taken in the first place. This is the shift in the story in which the audience—both readers and viewers—have been waiting for since the cast was announced. This episode reiterates the dangers Lyra has been shielded from her entire life, but with her recently acquired knowledge, she knows she cannot return to Jordan College without Roger. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Idea of North”

The episode wastes no time resuming where it left off. Lyra Belaqua arrives in London with Mrs. Coulter, and Roger arrives in London to where the other kidnapped children are being held, including Billy Costa. Both children have no idea why there are wanted, but they have no choice but to go along with their circumstances. But, it’s clear that Mrs. Coulter is NOT to be trusted. 

            Mrs. Coulter is a villain whose motivations remain unknown, for now. Yet, this adaptation presents her in a way that wasn’t seen before in the movie or in the books. It’s obvious Mrs. Coulter is struggling with both the actions and the position she’s found herself in, but she is hard to read by everyone, so she remains a mystery. As of right now, Mrs. Coulter is breaking because for all of her composure, she has moments of rage. Something Lyra experiences firsthand, and it scares her. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium is investigating Lord Asriel’s “discovery” and the true purpose of his research. The crypts at Jordan College seem to be a very popular place because everyone finds themselves there eventually. I would use the terms heresy and hypocrisy to describe the Magisterium. While it is obvious the scholars at Oxford wonder about Lord Asriel’s theory about Dust and other worlds, it appears that the Magisterium has some knowledge about it already, and they use it to their advantage. 

            Billy and Roger are minor characters whose roles are emerging into the plot. The Gyptians are searching for the children in London, but they always arrive just too late to rescue them. After they are moved, Mrs. Coulter arrives and a scene from the books is presented for the readers; then again, the viewers see more of Mrs. Coulter’s character in the scene as well. 

            Lyra is known for being an explorer, like her uncle(?), and she knows something is going on with Mrs. Coulter. However, everything is kept under lock-and-key, so Lyra finds another way to get the information she seeks. What she finds leaves more questions than answers, but she knows that she’s not safe, especially with the Magisterium hanging around Mrs. Coulter. 

            The Idea of North is an episode that focuses on world-building and character development. A lot of it comes from the books, but there are several additional scenes that embellish the adaptation further. The episode moves towards the darker side of the story, the same dark side that Lyra was shielded from at Jordan College. We get a look into what is happening in London, in Oxford, and in Oxford (not a typo). Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Billy and Roger, the Gyptians and the Magisterium are participating in something bigger than they believed originally. And, there is more to come. The plot develops too, but this is the chance to learn how the characters fit into the plot as it continues to develop.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.