Having long neglected the horror genre despite my undying love of scary films, I’ve never read a book quite like The Year of the Witching. With plagues, sigils, zealots, and pilgrim-style clothing, this book brings to mind The Omen, The Village, and just about anything with ‘Salem’ in the title. This book is worth a read just to experience these tropes in written form instead of on the big screen.
“Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Father help them.”
The Year of the Witching is the story of Immanuelle, a young girl shunned by the villagers of Bethel for the wicked deeds of her mother, rumoured to have consorted with the witches of the forest before dying in childbirth.
Bethel is ruled by the Prophet who enforces the Father’s misogynistic Holy Scripture, attempting to purge Bethel of sin in order to earn His favour. With the Mother’s forest surrounding the town, the threat of darkness and dissent is ever-present, and the Prophet demands a blood price to keep the village pure.
When her ram is spooked by a storm and runs into the Darkwood, Immanuelle follows, desperate to protect her family’s livelihood. Lost in the cursed forest, she encounters the Witch Queen and her coven, who gift Immanuelle the diary of her mother. Reading the journal in secret, Immanuelle uncovers the truth about her mother’s deeds, Bethel’s dark past and the full extent of the witches’ rage.
“A curse can only come from the mouth of a woman. From the mouth of a witch.”
The Year of the Witching is an ominous and grim fable. It’s ripe with symbolism that speaks of female empowerment and breaking free from a cycle of abuse. Immanuelle is a biracial protagonist who struggles with a feeling of disconnection from society, something that many readers will relate to.
With minimal internal dialogue, the book is written with a storybook quality that enhances the dark, gothic tone. While this style works well, at times I wished for more depth of language which could have made dramatic and disturbing scenes all the more effective, something that would have benefited the final chapters in particular. Immanuelle’s emotional state is often indicated by whether or not she is ‘shaking violently’ or ‘gasping for air’ which, while visual, didn’t always help me connect with her character.
The puritanical society that Henderson has created is sinister and infuriating, with women being burnt at the stake, hung, beheaded and married off at the behest of men. In this setting Henderson uses witchcraft as a symbol of feminine rebellion, laced with the temptation of revenge and dark power. I really love this concept, though I think being a fantasy reader I’ve been conditioned to require a fully realised magic/theological system. I found myself a little confused by the ditheistic religion, as the existence and nature of the Father and Mother seems to contradict the gender roles at play in the story. It’s also never really explained how the witches still exist in the forest after being burnt at the stake years prior.
I’ve recently seen this book described as YA, while I was expecting an Adult read that would have me turning on all the lights in the house. There are definitely a number of disturbing scenes in this novel, though I would agree with this label in that the writing is accessible and focused on narrative. I’m not sure who is the authority on whether or not a book is YA – I think people often make the assumption based on the protagonist’s age – but I wonder if the marketing was deliberately vague on this point to maximise the potential reading audience.
I really enjoyed reading The Year of the Witching, and the way that Henderson has used familiar and loved horror elements to send a positive message in a confronting way. I find myself wanting to read more books like it, so I will be making time to read the sequel.
I’m having one of those moments where I dislike using a rating system, as I’m still processing the book and how I feel about it. I would definitely recommend this book to horror fans as a great YA read, especially readers interested in the witch hunts of colonial America.
Trigger warning: Sexual and physical abuse, cutting