The Year of the Witching
by Alexis Henderson
368pp (Hardcover/Ebook)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.93/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.04/5

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Terror is twofold in The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson’s dark fantasy/Gothic horror debut novel, with its story involving mysterious witch spirits as well as the everyday atrocities that occur in a patriarchal puritanical society—the latter of which is magnified for protagonist Immanuelle Moore, a biracial sixteen year old followed by her mother’s sins and connection to the witchy woods.

Immanuelle’s grandparents were among the wealthiest, most powerful people in their religious community until the Prophet, the leader of their faith, decided to take their daughter as one of his brides. After discovering she was having an affair during their betrothal, the Prophet had the farm boy she loved burned at the pyre, and she retaliated by attempting to murder him the night before their marriage ceremony was to take place. She escaped into the woods said to be haunted by Lilith and her coven and returned home months later, where she died giving birth to her beloved’s child. That same night, her father lost his rare Holy Gifts from the Good Father and had a severe stroke that left him in poor health—and because he and his wife did not shun their daughter and raised her daughter, they also lost their estate, their comfortable lifestyle, their status in the Church, and the respect of their community.

Nearly seventeen years later, Immanuelle’s family is struggling to make ends meet, and she, as their shepherdess, is sent to sell a young ram at the market. She does not find a buyer and ends up leaving with the yearling in tow, but on her way home, the animal breaks free and runs into the forbidden forest. Immanuelle fails to retrieve him but encounters two of the witches she’s heard tales of throughout her life, who give her a book that turns out to be her mother’s journal. From this, Immanuelle learns more of the parents she never knew but is also unnerved by it, especially as it becomes less coherent and eventually devolves into repetition of the words “Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.”

Soon, Immanuelle fears that these words were prophetic and what they foretold is somehow linked to her and the eerie woods that call to her. She determines to find answers and put a stop to the horrors to come—even if that means studying forbidden knowledge and returning to the forbidden forest.

The Year of the Witching drew me in immediately with smooth prose and a short atmospheric prologue setting the scene for darkness to come with Immanuelle’s mother, drenched in blood and dying, claiming a witch told her that her newborn daughter would be a curse. The main story then picks up nearly seventeen years after the night Immanuelle was born, and I was every bit as drawn into the tale of her everyday life in the religious community of Bethel as the ominous opening. It’s immediately clear that she’s an outcast, the Black daughter of a notoriously sinful woman, and the only people who care for her are her family and her friend Leah—whom she fears she’s about to lose since Leah will soon become the newest bride of the Prophet.

Not so shockingly, Bethel was not built for people like Immanuelle’s father—who, like most Black people, lived apart from the white community in the Outskirts until the Prophet killed him—or the women and girls who are part of the Church. The misogyny that runs rampant in Bethel is not at all subtle: the Father and his followers are good while the Mother and the witches who follow her are bad, the Prophet can add any he wants to his collection of wives, and when he does take a new wife, their marriage ceremony involves the bride lying on an altar while he literally carves a symbol into her forehead with a knife. (Warning: There is some heavy content related to abuse, including discussion of past childhood rape.)

Given her race, gender, class, parentage, and disgraced family, Immanuelle is among those impacted the worst by Bethel’s foundations, but at the start of her journey, she largely accepts the way things are and is not particularly rebellious. She’s not a fervent believer like her grandmother, but her numerous “sins” include breaking the same rules about swimming as famously pious Leah, not saying her prayers at night, and not being appropriately grateful for unpalatable food. I thought this was completely believable for many reasons: she’s grown up isolated, never having been outside of Bethel or among people who weren’t part of this community, and her outsider status worked to shield her from seeing a lot of the hypocrisy and larger atrocities that occur. Being raised with fear of hellfire and brimstone and burning at the pyre makes obedience into a matter of survival, and as someone who is particularly disdained and likely to be punished more harshly for less, it seems probable that Immanuelle would have learned to be wary of rocking the boat.

However, Immanuelle’s story is about discovery and transformation (in addition to witches and curses and spooky forests), and I also thought her growing awareness of the wrongness of their society was equally believable. She learns more about the past and present, helped in part by her developing friendship/potential romance with Ezra, the Prophet’s heir, and his access to his father’s library. As the two come to know each other better, Ezra challenges some of Immanuelle’s perceptions about their laws and treatment of women (and shocks her by reading a forbidden encyclopedia in the guise of Holy Scripture). I liked Ezra from his introductory scene when he laughed at Immanuelle’s sarcastic response to taunts about taking after her mother, but I did feel like it was too convenient that the next Prophet was critical of their religious practices at first. After learning more about Ezra’s upbringing and family relationships, I thought this actually did work as a general character trait, although I still felt he was too perfectly aware to ring true.

But then, I don’t consider this to be a particularly character intensive novel, and none of the characters were as fleshed out as Immanuelle herself. She’s one of the types of characters I enjoy reading about: one who grows and ends up in a different place from where she started, one brimming with determination and the desire to do what’s right, one who is loyal to those she cares about and generally compassionate yet has a sharp edge. The choices she made at the end said a lot about her as a person, and I loved that despite having a different outlook in the final chapters, she still seemed like the same character from the beginning—just one whose experiences had pulled a deeper part of herself from the shadows into the light.

But…My biggest problems with the novel were also tied to the conclusion, as well as later chapters since the last two parts seemed more rushed than the first and the supernatural thread was a letdown. I tried to keep the biggest reasons for this somewhat vague in the section below, but I wasn’t certain this was vague enough so they’re behind spoiler tags.

The latter of those, at least, may be addressed in the upcoming sequel.

Despite these problems and the dissatisfying ending, I did find Immanuelle and her journey engaging, and The Year of the Witching kept me turning the pages (no easy feat in the year 2020!). This immersive debut definitely made me want to look out for more of Alexis Henderson’s future work—including the sequel scheduled for next year!

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Digital ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Year of the Witching