The Year of the Witching is an atmospheric dark fantasy novel about a secretive cult. The land of Bethel is ruled by the Prophet, blessed with visions from the Father. Immanuelle is a true believer, but will never be fully accepted because her father was an outsider, and her mother burnt as a witch. One day, Immanuelle dares to step outside of the confines of Bethel and into the forbidden Darkwood – but her adventure sets off a chain of events that could alter the fate of Bethel forever.
Immanuelle is a delightful protagonist – feisty yet caring, outwardly compliant but inwardly with a spark of rebellion. Her friendship with Leah is sweet and the difficulties of her outsider status well portrayed. I also liked how intricately the novel explored Immanuelle’s relationship with her family – as an outsider and a reminder of her mother’s mistakes, Immanuelle was both a beloved daughter and granddaughter and a curse upon their fortunes and reputation. Immanuelle and Martha especially had a complicated relationship that was deftly dealt with.
Ezra’s character arc was predictable but that didn’t make him unlikeable – there was little about him not to like. The son and heir apparent of the Prophet, Ezra’s future is set in stone – and there’s no place in it for an outsider like Immanuelle. But those with conscripted futures like to bend the rules – and Ezra is no exception. His character was a little too shallow for my liking – I would have liked to see more of his interactions with his mother and the Prophet and learn a little more about his motivations – but nonetheless he kept me rooting for him throughout.
The setting of Bethel is intriguing, especially the Darkwood. The religion followed shares aspects with Christianity – such as Lilith, mother of all evil – but is subtly different to any existing religion that I’m aware of. The version of witchcraft explored is also interesting, with power only accessible to those of certain bloodlines and by using distinct sigils carved onto objects or skin. However, neither the root of this power nor the origins of the religion and Bethel are ever explained. In many ways this works well – it cuts out any slow exposition at the start of the novel, instead launching straight into Immanuelle’s life – but I find myself wanting to know more. Why has no-one in Bethel ever tried to do anything about the Darkwood, this version of Hell that sits right on their doorstep? Why does everyone hate witchcraft? What exactly are Lilith and her kin? I love the idea and creativity, but wish the author had included some basic answers.
The writing is lovely – simple, with no excess description, but evocative and atmospheric, transporting you to Bethel and the eerie Darkwood. It’s also exceptionally easy to read – I breezed through this in a couple of hours. If you’re looking for a quick novel to take you somewhere else for a while, this makes a compelling choice.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s not perfect, but as the author’s debut it’s a solid work with likeable characters and an intriguing setting. I suspect many people will love it – I just wanted a little more exposition.
Published by Bantam Press (Penguin)
Hardback: 23 July 2020