The Nature of Witches: An unlikable protagonist squanders a great premise

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin. Image courtesy Sourcebooks Fire
The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin. Image courtesy Sourcebooks Fire /

These days in the world of fantasy, witches are all the rage. Some are tales of sisterhood (The Once and Future Witches) while others are stories of revenge (Witches Steeped in Gold), and some are about magic users that certainly wouldn’t identify themselves that way. But Rachel Griffith’s debut novel The Nature of Witches manages something rare and special: A truly original premise.

In the world of her story, witches are deeply tied to nature  – so much so, in fact, that they help both control and balance it. Here, each witch is born tied to one of the four seasons and gains specific abilities and powers that flourish at particular times of the year. Except for Clara, who is an Everwitch, the rarest of witches whose powers are tied to every season, and which change with them accordingly.

In theory, an Everwitch’s powers are meant to help heal the unstable atmosphere and to somehow prevent it from deteriorating further into chaos. And, to be fair, Griffin’s worldbuilding here is fascinating, from the ways that the various seasonal magics differ from and complement one another, to the ways that each season is best suited to solve specific climate problems. Summers train to battle forest fires and droughts. Springs can control thunderstorms and other similarly volatile weather events. Winters face down blizzards.

All in all, it’s one of the most original set-ups for a fantasy story I’ve encountered in some time, not to mention incredibly timely. It often feels like this is precisely the sort of story young adult fantasy should be exploring – how the magic of fantasy can and does intertwine with the problems facing our real world right now.

The problem with this story, unfortunately, is Clara. As main characters go, shes’ deeply unlikeable, and spends much of the novel complaining, quitting training, and engaging in long, drawn-out bouts of self-loathing that are theoretically meant to come across as sympathetic, Ibut really do not.

Clara doesn’t particularly want to be an Everwitch. Certainly not now that she knows the price that comes from using her magic. (In this world, a witch’s magic is uniquely connected to her emotions and often attaches itself to people the witch cares about. Clara’s inability to control her magic has cost her not just the lives of her parents over the years, but also her best friend Nikki. To her, it’s not worth the risk, and she’s planning to expose herself to an upcoming total eclipse so that she can be stripped of her powers forever.

In the wake of these painful losses, it makes sense that Clara would hate and fear her own abilities. And honestly, she has every right to feel the way she does. But The Nature of Witches focuses on Clara’s fear and self-loathing to the exclusion of almost every other aspect of her character, and it’s a choice that makes her most frequently come off as stagnant and dull. For huge swaths of the book, it feels like she has almost no development, and her character rotates through the same arc at least three times as she tentatively opens herself up to someone only to immediately run away as soon as she perceives they might be in danger.  She begins training, gives up training, returns to training. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Maybe if we’d ever known Clara before she became so afraid of herself — or seen flashbacks with her friends or family when she felt freer and less closed off — it might have been easier to care about her struggles. But since most of what we see of her pain is simply her repeating herself over and over, it’s really difficult to connect with her as a character.

It’s a shame because the message of The Nature of Witches feels both fresh and important. But it’s hard to get swept away in its lush magical system and honestly gorgeous descriptions when the main character is so difficult and unlikeable. Would absolutely love to read another story in some corner of this universe though, and I wouldn’t even mind seeing Clara again if there were any real chance she might mature into a character I could like.

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The Nature of Witches is available now.