Unquestionable submission is expected from the women of Bethel, especially for one such as Immanuelle Moore, whose very existence is a sin. Since she can remember, she’s always felt like an outsider despite being a devoted member of the flock, and unknown to even those closest to her, the Darkwood that surrounds Bethel has always been a temptation. It’s forbidden to enter there, the home of the witch-spirits, but an incident pushes Immanuelle over its threshold. Nothing will be the same again.
(WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers.)
I picked up The Year of the Witching after it caught my interest, and was initially absorbed by Henderson’s concept – a puritanical and patriarchal society isolated from the rest of the world, reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale but with witches thrown into the mix. There’s something I find satisfying about characters overcoming the difficulties of dystopian communities, and the unpleasantness of Bethel certainly took centre stage while Immanuelle fought against the system. Over the course of the novel, however, my interest drifted from being engaged to being less than. For a debut I’d consider it decent; a detailed setting, an average enough – if not bland – protagonist with secrets about herself to uncover, and other elements I’m sure would appeal to certain tastes, such as the romantic interest. For me, it had promise but felt underwhelming, especially when it came to the witches themselves. Lilith, Delilah, Jael and Mercy were extremely well written when they were on the page, but as it turned out, that wasn’t a whole lot. Throughout the novel I was told of how terrible they were, and of the violent history surrounding the Darkwood and Bethel, but in actuality, the four witches were hardly in it. I found it quite disappointing in this regard, but while the horror may have lacked in the supernatural department, the extremism of the people made up for it.
Bethel went hard on the prejudice: men were superior, whites were superior, homosexuality forbidden, and punishment for going against Holy Protocol was brutal. Henderson did so well in depicting this horrible existence to the point that I didn’t really want the city to be saved, therefore it was difficult for me to get on board with Immanuelle’s sheer determination to rescue Bethel from its fate, especially taking into account her family’s history, as well as the crimes they allowed their Prophet to get away with. A part of me feels it was just a clear-cut because it was the right thing to do, despite Immanuelle’s own understanding of complacency and complicity. It’s why, as a protagonist, she wasn’t all that memorable – give me flawed, three dimensional characters over cardboard do-gooders any day.
Overall, it was suspended in a space between young adult and adult; whereas it felt like YA for the majority, some seriously dark subject matters pushed it into mature territory, such as the sexual abuse of a minor. Books like this are hard to define – what readers identify as YA and horror can drastically vary, to the point that genres are entirely subjective. If I had to personally categorise The Year of the Witching, I’d go with YA / dark fantasy – suffice it to say, I would’ve preferred less time on the romance, and more focus on the witchcraft. As it was, Ezra fell completely flat, and the occult themes that were flirted with didn’t exactly reach any sort of peak.
As for what I thought of the audiobook, it was decent enough with the narration of Brianna Colette, however a less childish voice for Immanuelle may have suited her better; even when the situation was dire, she’d have this light and airy pitch that made her seem much, much younger.
In conclusion: The Year of the Witching told the story of a woman’s struggle between a magical destiny and a life of total obedience, and while it wasn’t quite what I expected, it was definitely engrossing at certain points, especially the ugliness that was Bethel. There were two evils that Immanuelle had to deal with, and it struck me that the side she was trying to save didn’t deserve it, so I had trouble relating to her as a character. The aspects more related to YA didn’t really appeal either; I wanted more supernatural and less focus on the unremarkable building of a relationship. All in all, a feminist tale that had its ups and downs, with writing that was, at times, impressively lyrical and beautiful.
The earth beneath their feet was bleeding, and despite their best prayers and efforts, they couldn’t make it stop.
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