October 29, 2020

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching

by Alexis Henderson

Published 21 June 2020
by ACE

Rating: 5 Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Historical Fiction, Horror

When this book was first suggested as a possible October read in my book club I saw the white cover version with the witch’s seal on it and expected something similar to The Blair Witch Project. I was very wrong, but I am not disappointed!

The setting of The Year of the Witching, a place called Bethel, reminds me of the M. Night Shyamalan film The Village. It’s a religious commune of Christian flavour, but twisted into a corrupt patriarchal cult. The community’s leader is the Prophet, what he says goes without question, and he takes as many wives as he likes (sometimes even before he weds them.) This could be 18th century rural America, or it could be an isolated commune just miles from a modern city in the 21st century. I found myself wondering for quite a bit of this book which it is.

Immanuelle is the daughter of a suspected witch and the son of a family from beyond the town limits who was burned on a pyre for his sins before Immanuelle was born. Immanuelle has been raised by her maternal grandparents on their farm, tending to the goat herd and keeping her head down, but it’s no secret that a girl with her history will never be chosen to marry well. When the young ram she tries to sell at market one day escapes into the Darkwood she has been forbidden to enter, she’s forced to follow him, and instead comes face to face with the witches of the woods. A series of curses is about to be unleashed upon Bethel, and Immanuelle and her mother’s legacy are at the centre of it.

This book keeps the action coming chapter after chapter. Every time you think the worst is over, something else happens. The author’s way of describing the horrors these curses bring upon the town (and the horror dealt by the very human and non-magical Prophet) is so powerful. All senses are engaged, nothing is predictable, and everything is truly horrifying. With that said, Henderson has mastered the art of gothic horror style writing, wherein the horrors are indeed horrifying but nothing is too graphic or gory, and there’s no needless detail. Sometimes the best part of horror is what you don’t see, and Henderson seems to understand that.

I wanted to address the subtle notes of racism in this book. There’s definite xenophobia in terms of the residents of Bethel itself rejecting those who live outside the community’s limits, but Immanuelle is described as having darker colouring and curly hair, and it’s implied that these are traits that come from her outsider ancestry. Not only is Immannuelle forever an outsider within her own community because of her parents’ actions before she was born, she’s also visibly marked as an outsider because she looks different from everyone else. It’s difficult to tell if her features are meant to come from Black or Latina heritage.

I love how Immanuelle was written. She’s strong, stubborn, and resilient. She just wants to do what she perceives is the right thing to do for the greater good in her community, even when time and again that means making personal sacrifices. She’s so wrapped up in her mission that she takes a very long time to realize what she feels for the obvious love interest character Ezra.

Ezra, son of the Prophet, is written as a very genuine and pure young man who is motivated first and foremost by love.

This book has a lot to say about feminism, religious freedom, and human equality. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’ll be recommending it to everyone who loves dark historical fiction or gothic horror.

Content warnings for death (including parental death), body horror (light gore), animal sacrifice, sexual assault (including with teenage minors), religious content, witchcraft/curses.

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Read more reviews and other bookish topics from Jenna Rideout at Westveil Publishing

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