The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

A review of the horror novel The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson.

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The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson is the story of Emmanuelle, a young girl living in the strict religious community of Bethel. One day she ends up in the Darkwood that surrounds her home, and she stumbles on a secret that may spell destruction for her home and for everyone she loves.

I was very excited for this book, as it was touted as a feminist, witchy read, and I was very much in the mood for a story that was both powerful and spooky. Unfortunately this book was a big disappointment, and I read the last quarter of the book with ever-increasing rage and frustration.

The writing wasn’t great. I didn’t get a sense of Emmanuelle’s voice, and there were some very clumsy sentences and images that baffled me with their lack of relevance. The tone was inconsistent, and although there were some mildly tense moments, the poor writing really contributed to the book’s lack of atmosphere. After accepting the book’s mediocre writing, I hoped that at least the story and characters would make up for it, but these were even worse.

The plot was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages, but the core of the story seemed to be Emmanuelle’s journey to self-realisation and empowerment, and that felt flat because Emmanuelle, like all of the characters, never develops in a way that feels real or is explored in any attempt at nuance. Emmanuelle only seemed to act as the plot required. At one point she tells us that she’s never been outspoken, but there aren’t any scenes of her being quiet or shy. In one scene she has rebellious thoughts about her upbringing, and in another scene she’s shocked that a character voices something blasphemous. There was no consistency to her personality or to her growth, and this was so disappointing. The society she was raised in is a very strict Puritanical one, and I wanted to see her slowly unlearn what she’d been conditioned into believing, but there was no progression of doubt and self-assertion, she just seemed to emotionally flop about with no clear through line of her development.

This lack of clarity in Emmanuelle’s journey bled over into the other characters too until it became confusing how I was meant to be viewing them. As an example, her grandfather is introduced as a distant patriarch of the strict society; at this point all we know is that Bethel is “bad” and her grandfather used to be a leading figure in that society, so the impression we’re left with is that her grandfather is a negative character. But suddenly about halfway through the book there’s a scene of him telling Emmanuelle how much she means to him and how he’ll do anything for her. This sudden shift in how we perceive the grandfather is so disorientating, it’s like meeting a whole new character. This kind of confusion happens in other places too, with it not being clear or consistent how we’re meant to be reading people or events.

Another element of the book that was confusing and disappointing was the world-building. The story is set in a rural farming community, and given the themes of witchcraft and religion, I expected it to be set at least loosely in the seventeenth century. But then characters would say things like “okay” or mention sinks in their houses (even though it was made clear they had no running water) or have guards fire off multiple rifle rounds. If the rest of the book had felt confident and consistent, I probably would have accepted these things as deliberate, but combined with the rest of the book they felt more like clumsy mistakes as the result of not investing enough time in world building. This clumsiness applies to the book’s themes as well, which read like Feminism 101, rather than a thoughtful discussion on anything relevant to a modern reader.

This book frustrated me a great deal. In the hands of another author, maybe the themes of religious oppression and female autonomy could have been executed more deftly, but as it is, The Year of the Witching reads very much like a first novel, and one that needed more work to make it the powerful story it could have been.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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