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)!!!   

Why You Need to Read: “Small Spaces”

Small Spaces: #1: Small Spaces

By: Katherine Arden

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Children, Paranormal, Horror, Folklore

            Ollie, poised on the edge of flight, said, “Tell me what?”

            “Avoid large places at night,” the woman breathed. “Keep to small.”

            “Small? That’s it?”

            “Small!” shrieked the woman. “Small spaces! Keep to small spaces or see what happens to you! Just see!” She burst into wild laughter, (Chapter 2).

            Katherine Arden, author of The Winternight Trilogy, has demonstrated her ability to branch out to a wider audience with her stories. This time, the author shares a story for young readers. Small Spaces will make you believe that you are reading a book from Goosebumps, a series that terrified me as a child. The difference here is the reality written within the story. Katherine Arden reminds her readers that folklore is ubiquitous. Every “story” has a dose of “truth” in it.  

            The protagonist is 11-year-old Olivia “Ollie” Adler and she is dealing with the recent death of her mother. After a bad day at school, Ollie rides her bike to the local river where she sees a woman standing at its edge screaming at a book she’s about to throw into the water. Ollie manages to steal the book believing “it’s just a book,” but the woman screams a warning not to read the book and to keep to “small spaces.” Just like anyone else, child or adult, Ollie believes the woman is crazy and sees no harm in reading the book. She reads about Beth Webster—a woman who had the affection of brothers Jonathan and Caleb. A few days later, Ollie’s class goes on a field trip to the farm, the same farm the book mentions. When the bus breaks down during the return ride, some of her classmates disappear. Ollie begins to wonder whether or not the story in the book is based on truth. Ollie has been withdrawn since her mother’s death. However, with all of the eerie coincidences and the same warning about “small spaces,” Ollie and two of her friends—Coco and Brian—must use the knowledge they have and their skills in order to survive the night and to save their classmates and teacher. Ollie is a complex character in that she is a child who lost her mother but must focus on surviving an urban legend. Her classmates are typical sidekicks, but they provide Ollie with the companionship she needs at the moment. 

            The plot is simple: a girl steals a book an adult is trying to destroy, the girl reads the book and soon realizes that what she thought was a story isn’t a story, and the girl must survive a supernatural force that is hunting her down. Before the field trip, Ollie is reading “Small Spaces” and about the people who are mentioned in it. At the same time, Ollie and her classmates learn about Smoke Hollow and its eerie history surrounding the family that owns the land, who happen to be the descendants of the people mentioned in Ollie’s book. Urban legends—tales based on rumors—are part of folklore, which are beliefs and cultural practices shared by a group of people that are passed from generation to generation. The story Ollie reads in her book and the tales she hears in class are examples of folklore, which is the subplot of the novel. These stories give Ollie just enough information to survive her upcoming ordeal. Both the information and the plot (and the subplot) are presented at an appropriate rate. Readers will forget this is a children’s book. 

            The narrative is told from Ollie’s point-of-view; and, given everything that has happened to her, she is a reliable narrator. The story is told in present time, with the exception of the events in Ollie’s book, which are presented as journal entries. Throughout the narrative, readers learn about Ollie and the choices she makes and why. All the while, readers are reminded that Ollie is just a kid. 

            Katherine Arden’s style remains as it was for her adult books, but the word choice and the sentence structure are written for children. The author presents another aspect of folklore to her fans and readers: legends and urban legends. Legends are unverified popular stories believed to be based on historical events that are passed from generation to generation. Ubiquitous examples are King Arthur and Atlantis. Urban legends are rumors of experiences that someone known to the storyteller—a friend of a friend—had. Urban legends involve creepy and/or supernatural stories such as: hitch hikers and haunted houses. The mood is the eeriness presented by these stories and urban legends. The tone is the notion that legends and other stories are “stories” until the truth in them emerges. In other words, don’t ignore any strange occurrences that happen around you!

            The appeal of Small Spaces have been positive. It is a horror book, so readers of any age will find it frightening at times, but it is an enjoyable read about an adventure in an individual’s small hometown. Remember, there are children who read and enjoy horror stories. As a 90’s kid, both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? were popular amongst kids my age (and both series gave me nightmares). Children who have watched Jordan Peele’s horror movies and/or the IT movie remakes will enjoy Small Spaces the most. In fact, the next book in the series, Dead Voices, comes out in August 2019. 

            Small Spaces is a strong introduction to young readers who enjoy believable haunted stories. Katherine Arden continues to use folklore in her stories in order to provide a sense of realism for her readers. As a fan of her adult fantasy, I was just as impressed with this book as with her other ones! Small Spaces is a fun read!

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