‘The Nature of Witches’ is an atmospheric contemporary fantasy novel that explores the burden of the ‘chosen one’ trope. Written for a YA fantasy audience, it has equal crossover appeal to readers of character-driven adult fantasy, like ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ or ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue‘. The writing is beautiful, changing slightly in tone with each season and leaving an impact long beyond the final page. It isn’t perfect – it’s a debut, with some rough edges to be expected – but it’s a brilliant book.
For centuries, witches have been responsible for maintaining the Earth’s climate. However, with human-induced climate change, the climate is becoming too erratic for them to control. Their only hope lies with Clara – the first Everwitch born in a century. But Clara hates her magic – it’s dangerous, and she’s lost too many people she loves already. While everyone else tries to drive Clara to push her abilities and fight for the future of the Earth, Clara sees her only hope in stripping herself of her magic so she isn’t cursed to spend forever alone.
The book is set over a year of Clara’s life training at a school for witches. It’s split into sections based on seasons. Most witches have the power of only one season, the season of their birth – but Clara, the Everwitch, has the power of all four seasons, changing as the season turns. The price of this is that she changes to, her desires and personality as changeable as the weather. Griffin makes this work beautifully. In autumn, Clara is in flux – swinging from hope to despair, indifference to rage. In winter, Clara is more stoic, steadfast, confident in making decisions and blunt in her conclusions. This section is one of my favourites, with some of the best writing in the entire book. In spring, Clara grows and changes – passion rises, along with her power, but also a storm of worries that threatens to undo her. In summer, that tumult of emotion spikes, and all Clara’s plans are thrown into chaos.
Clara makes a brilliant protagonist – one who feels completely like a teenager with the weight of the word on her shoulders. She’s self-centred and brooding, bottling everything up until it threatens to explode. She blames herself for everything and convinces herself that far from being the Earth’s salvation, she’s defective – something that needs to be removed. But while all that self-pity can be difficult to read, it comes from a good place. Clara has a huge heart, and while all her decisions are short-sighted in the way the choices of teenagers often are, her intentions are good. Clara doesn’t just think she’s special – she knows she is, and that knowledge is immensely difficult for her to handle. The emotional immaturity, rash decision making, and insistence on solitude rather than confiding in anyone else feel authentically like the choices a teenager would make in her situation.
The counterpoints to Clara’s emotional storm are Sang and Paige. Sang, a Spring witch brought to the school to train Clara, is sunshine in human form. He has all the best attributes of spring – a constant sense of happiness and cheerfulness, a love for family, and a keen interest in life and growth. Sang forces Clara out of her brooding state and brings contentment to her life that she didn’t think was possible. Of course, spring isn’t only about the sunny days, and Sang has his clouds too. He needs human connection, and when Clara withdraws into her shell, he struggles. But Sang has the patience of spring too, and he’ll always wait for the clouds to pass over.
Paige, in contrast, is all sharp angles and biting retorts. She has the hardness of winter – the strength required to stay strong in the harshest of seasons, and a contempt for weakness in others. Paige sees Clara’s selfishness and it brings rage. But winter isn’t only cold and anger. Like Sang, Paige cares deeply about Clara, it just manifests in different ways. Where Sang uses smiles and emotional heart-to-hearts, Paige argues and insults – anything to bring Clara out of her shell. Anything to show the world that its strong enough to survive. It takes time to come to like Paige, but as time goes on she becomes a refreshing cool breeze on a warm day.
The worldbuilding is simple but effective. The story is set in a parallel version of America, but one that is aware of witches. In this America, witches are seen as the cure to everything – humanity doesn’t need to worry about endless growth and climate destruction because the witches are there to fix it. The shaders – non-witches – aren’t malicious, they’re simply ignorant of the impact their climate destruction is causing. The magic system is equally simple – magic comes only to those born on a solstice or equinox, with the magic specific to the season of birth and strongest during that season.
This is a quiet novel. The biggest villain for Clara to fight is herself – her own thoughts and worries. There’s no grand exposition about how and why magic works – it’s just there. This is a novel about climate change, but its just as much about human psychology and coming to terms with power. Those looking for action, or heroes and villains, or complex fantasy elements won’t find them here. But for those who like their stories character driven with complex, messy characters, this is an excellent choice.
Published by Sourcebooks Fire
Hardback: 1st June 2021