The Year of the Witching is a dark, haunting tale of feminism and magic

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson. Image Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson. Image Courtesy Penguin Random House /

Alexis Henderson’s must-read debut novel, The Year of the Witching, is a dark tale of magic, oppression, and female strength in the midst of a patriarchal society.

Alexis Henderson’s debut novel The Year of the Witching sure packs an outsize punch. The book, which is a story of dark magic and religious oppression amidst a dystopian and patriarchal society, almost feels as though it belongs in a different time of year, on shelves in the creepy shadows of October rather than the blazing heat of July. But regardless of when it arrived, one thing would still be true: This is a book that belongs on your must-read list for 2020. And it’s a title that, if there’s any justice, will be making many best-of rundowns come December.

The story is set in the rigid, puritanical society of Bethel, where women have few rights of their own and the Prophet’s word is the law. Immanneulle Moore has never felt as though she fits in, as the dark-skinned child of a woman who died in childbirth after flouting almost all their community’s rules. She lay with an Outsider, a man of a different race, and disappeared into the forbidden Darkwood, where she reportedly consorted with dark witches.

Her mother’s scandalous death – and the fact that her father was burned on a pyre for his supposed connected crimes – cast Immanuelle and her once-proud family into shame and disgrace. So for all of her life, she’s struggled to be the person her mother wasn’t: Obedient, devoted to Holy Protocol, and submissive to the will of the Father, the Prophet, and his church. She wants to be like the other women in her settlement. But, she isn’t.

Because, like her mother before her, Immanuelle also hears the call of the Darkwood and the coven of witches that supposedly live in it.

The story of The Year of the Witching is a coming of age tale about a young woman trying to claim her power and determine her place in the world, in a society that doesn’t think she should get to do or have either of those things. It’s also a horror story, of both the supernatural and the human variety. Yes, there are witches and dark forces at work in this tale, but there are also the dark failings of men, and those can be just as sinister and frightening as anything conjured by magic.

As a series of plagues come over Bethel – blood, blight, darkness, and slaughter – the Prophet and his men begin searching for explanations, and naturally, their eyes turn to the women of their community, and the ways they might have brought this on them. (Of course, the sins of the men – those that leer at young girls, take multiple wives, scar their faces to brand them as owned objects – are all overlooked.) But Immanuelle knows the truth – that she’s connected to these plagues somehow and, as such, she’s the one who can stop them.

Immanuelle is a fabulous heroine – complicated, brave, reckless, and a little bit selfish by turns. Her desperation to know more about the mother she never knew is understandable, but it leads her to make dangerous decisions, seeking out the witches and pouring over the journal her mother left behind. But she’s also just a girl who wants to live her life on her own terms, and those terms are often in conflict with the rigid rules of the society of Bethel, a painful dichotomy she has wrestled with since long before she came in contact with witchcraft.

The story’s secondary characters are slightly less fully realized, particularly Ezra, the heir apparent son of the current Prophet who will one day take over for this father. He is, thankfully, much more progressive in his thinking, but other than his love for books – which may be enough on its own given how tightly they are rationed – there’s little exploration of how he turned out to be so different from the other men in leadership positions in Bethel. Immanuelle’s best friend Leah is little more than a cautionary tale, and her toe-the-line aunt Martha isn’t given her due, narratively speaking, until well too late in the story.

The sense of creeping dread that pervades The Year of the Witching can often feel claustrophobic, but it keeps the story moving throughout, and makes the stakes of the novel feel real. As does Henderson’s unflinching willingness to peel back the layers of the patriarchal, racial and religious abuses of a society that views women as something simultaneously lesser and dangerous.

This is the sort of story that works better the less you know about it going in, so I’ll attempt to avoid more plot details here. But the story wrestles with complex issues of faith and belief alongside its feminism, and asks difficult questions about what it means to be part of a community – of both believers and neighbors. It’s a story that will stay with you long after you put it down.

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The Year of the Witching is available now. Let us know if you’re planning to add it to your TBR pile this summer!