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: “The Cerulean Queen”

The Nine Realms #4: The Cerulean Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: April 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I am Cerúlia, the daughter of the late, brave Queen Cressa the Enchanter and the heroic Lord Ambrice. 

            I. Am. Your. Queen, (Chapter Five).

            When the end of a story draws near, there lies a range of emotion from sadness to anxiousness. It is sad when a great story comes to an end, but there is anticipation in that the story will have a great ending. Many series that were well-received and started out well do have great endings, but there are a few that have excellent endings, and some whose endings fall short on everything. Sarah Kozloff delivers an excellent ending in The Nine Realms with the fourth and final book, The Cerulean Queen

            Cerúlia—once Wren, Kestrel, Skylark and finally, Phénix—has returned to Weirandale in order to claim her birthright, the Nargis Throne. Unfortunately, arriving in Cascada was the easy part. Cerúlia still has to get into the throne room, get Dedicated, seize control back from Matwyck, liberate the captured citizens, and begin her reign. All of this is easier said than done. Especially since Lord Matwyck, General Yurgn, and others have no intention of allowing Cerúlia to become queen. General Sumroth of Oromondo seeks power and vengeance towards the Nargis Queen for crimes new and forgotten. In fact, with some divine guidance, an alliance is made in order to destroy Weirandale. Meanwhile, Thalen, the Raiders, and the rest of the denizens in the Free States start to rebuild after the Oros had left their land after war and occupation. Thalen and the Raiders travel to the Scolairíum in order to resolve the remaining dilemma concerning Oromondo, the famine and the cause of it. In this part of the story, Queen Cerúlia presents the most development. She is no longer a child, but Cerúlia has neither knowledge nor experience with being a monarch; and, part of that lies in the fact that she spent more time with the common people instead of nobles. However, Cerúlia has always known who she is and what she would become, so she rises to all of the challenges of being a ruler and, she won’t have to do it alone. 

            The plot in The Cerulean Queen is Cerúlia’s rise to Queen amidst all of the threats a monarch has to put up with. Cerúlia has enemies in and beyond Weirandale who do all they can to stop her reign before order can be maintained. Not only must she gain control of all of the affairs of Weirandale, but also demonstrate her diplomatic abilities and desires for maintaining peace with the other realms. Cerúlia has the Nargis Throne and she must begin to consider the future of her kingdom. There are two subplots that coincide with the plot. First, is the divine intervention that continues to occur in Weirandale, especially now that Cerúlia is Queen. A few of the Spirits desire an end to the Nargis Line and they use both their Agents and the mortals to carry out those desires (with others opposing them at the same time). Second, is the consequences surrounding Cerúlia’s revelation to her friends, her allies and her foster family. Cerúlia’s true identity is shocking, but other secrets have yet to be revealed and the fallout begins once everything is known. The plot and the subplots develop alongside the narrative in order to start wrapping up the rest of the story. In addition, readers start saying goodbye to all of the characters as the plot(s) and the subplots are resolved. 

            The narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view; however, much of the narration focuses on Cerúlia. Readers do experience the on goings of the other realms from the other characters, but Cerúlia’s reign is the subject of the Spirits and all Nine Realms, so more attention is given to her. That being said, the narrative is in a chronological sequence told in 1st person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of reliable narrators. Most of the narration focuses on Cerúlia’s reign at its beginning. This means that she’ll have “challenges” to her status as Queen, leaving her to demonstrate her ability to rule. Readers should pay attention to the characters who support and who oppose her rule and why. Some of the characters are justified in their beliefs, others not so much. Some of Cerúlia’s opponents are not corrupt or greedy, they believe in their ambitions, and some of it is understandable. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in The Cerulean Queen focuses on the politics that comes with a monarchy with familiar fantasy tropes. Cerúlia becomes Queen, but still must weed out all of those responsible for Matwyck’s usurpation and tyranny while forming peace and alliances with the other realms and her subjects. Cerúlia and her allies know that changes must be made so that history doesn’t repeat itself; and, they have to determine when to be ruthless and when to be merciful. Towards the end of the book, fantasy tropes emerge, and they will remind readers of books by J.R.R. Tolkien and Tamora Pierce. The final battle, magic and the divine will playout in this book. It’s cliché, but it works well within this story. The mood is hope and all that comes with it. Even though Cerúlia is Queen, that was one factor of hope. The denizens of Weirandale are hoping for a peaceful reign, but all they can do is hope for a better future. The tone is strength and determination demonstrated by all of the protagonists and the main characters throughout the narrative. Cerúlia is not the only one with something to prove to everyone. The maps—not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist the readers with keeping track of all of the characters and the locations mentioned throughout the story. 

            The appeal for The Cerulean Queen will be positive. Not only has Sarah Kozloff presented readers with a fulfilling ending to this epic fantasy series, but also managed to pull it off by convincing the publisher—Tor Books—to release these books in consecutive months in order to keep the interests of the readers. And, this proves that reading an epic fantasy series is doable—there are several standalone books and series to choose from—and it should no longer be seen as a daunting experience. I believe The Nine Realms will remain in the fantasy canon because of the world-building and countless female characters presented throughout the series. I hope we’ll see more stories by the author in the future. 

            The Cerulean Queen is the novel that wraps up The Nine Realms saga; and, the author does a great job delivering an appropriate conclusion to the story and the characters. It is sad to see this series reach its end, but readers will not deny that they found the experience enjoyable and magical. Sarah Kozloff should be proud of what she has accomplished! And, when the anniversary omnibus edition is released, I’ll be purchasing a copy as well!

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