Book Review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.

When Immanuelle Moore stumbles into the Darkwood in search of a lost ram, she meets two of the dark pantheon of witches who are the immortal enemies of the followers of the Father. Instead of killing her, they send her on her way with her dead mother’s journal, which warns of terrible plagues to come–punishments for the racist, sexist transgressions of Bethel, her home, where accused witches and sinners burn on holy pyres at the whim of the Prophet.

Immanuelle has spent her life trying to be meek and good, atoning for her parents’ interracial relationship that ultimately sent her dark-skinned father to the pyre. But despite her best efforts, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the Darkwood and the witches within –and once the plagues descend, she soon realizes that her very existence holds the key to saving Bethel, or to damning it. Does it really deserve her mercy?

Cover description: a biracial Black woman in Puritan-like dress looks out intensely at the viewer as she stands in a gray-black, blood-spattered forest.

The Year of the Witching is deliciously ominous and dread-soaked, full of blood sacrifice, purging flame, and vengeful curses. The world of Bethel is fantasy, not historical fiction, which allows author Alexis Henderson to mix and match elements of religious fundamentalism (especially colonial Puritans and Christian polygamous cults) to create an original and captivating world and religion. When Immanuelle tasted “brine and iron” as she licks an anointment of lamb’s blood off her lips in the first chapter, I knew I was going to love this book. It’s quite literally visceral.

Henderson’s third-person writing style is deceptively simple, effective and crisp. It feels purposeful but not self-conscious. I especially appreciated how Henderson subverted light/dark tropes through tiny language choices as well as big plot machinations. (The way the Prophet preaches it, the Mother Goddess and her followers are evil and dark and the Father God and his followers are good and light. Unsurprisingly, the story turns out to be more complicated than that, but also maybe not in the way you think it’s going to be more complicated. It’s cleverly done.)

Immanuelle is a thoughtful and quiet protagonist–also, perhaps, deceptively simple. She radiates care and empathy in a way that’s immediately compelling. She’s the only biracial person who lives at the center of Bethel (everyone else is white), allowed to belong as long as she behaves and helps her family, who became impoverished and disgraced after her mother’s relationship with her father was exposed. At the beginning of the novel, Immanuelle has a tamped-down self-control that comes from a life of dealing with racism and suspicion of witchcraft. That self-control changes form as the story goes on, but it’s always there, and it’s her most powerful and memorable quality. You understand immediately why some people risk their lives to help her, and why others see her as a terrible threat.

I ran across this Toni Morrison quote again recently (source), and it reminded me a lot of The Year of the Witching:

“I just think goodness is more interesting,” Morrison said. “Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated.”

For all its gore and violence, this is a horror novel about goodness–real, complicated goodness, not the preachy kind. Immanuelle is the kind of protagonist I would follow to the ends of the earth.

The main reservation that leads me to a four-star rating rather than a perfect five is the ending, which is the only part of the novel that feels like a soft-pedal. After all that blood, blight, and darkness, I wasn’t hoping for more slaughter, exactly, but I was hoping for more spectacle–more imagery of the kind that’s so striking throughout the rest of the novel. I was also hoping for more depth in a certain love interest, who never quite justifies the amount of page time he gets. I love the concept behind his character and the tension it creates for Immanuelle, but in practice it rings a little false. I hope he gets more development in the sequel.

Quibbles aside, The Year of the Witching is stunning. Henderson’s willingness to play around with tropes and reader expectations pays off like gangbusters, even in the parts I found less dazzling than the rest. If you grew up on creepy historical witchy novels like Witch Girl and Wise Child, you should read it. If you love the movie The VVitch, you should read it. If you like gory, creepy feminist fantasy like The Bear and the Nightingale or Gideon the Ninth, you should read it.

None of the above? You should still probably read it. I loved this book. ★★★★☆

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Originally published July 2020 by Ace (Penguin Random House)

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I received my copy of The Year as the Witching as a personal gift and received no compensation of any kind from the author or publisher in exchange for this review.