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 Sword of Kaigen”

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Asian Literature/Standalone/Self-Published

            When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun). 

            Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity. 

            There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community. 

            The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.

            The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well. 

            The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth TrilogyThe Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.

            The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!

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