Sasha Peyton Smith’s The Witch Haven is one of Summer 2021’s most unexpected delights, a fast-paced adventure that mixes one part murder investigation with two parts historical drama and a dash of romance, then puts it all in a magical boarding school full of young witches who are just discovering what it means to have real power of their own.
And the end result is surprisingly great, giving us a story that is like almost nothing else in YA fantasy right now. Sure, the novel borrows familiar pieces and tropes from pretty much everywhere but it combines them in such a way that still feels both unexpected and fresh.
The Witch Haven is Smith’s debut novel, and it has me immediately curious to see what’s next from this author – both in terms of the conclusion to this story, and whatever she creates next.
The story follows seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell, a sweatshop seamstress in early twentieth-century New York. Struggling to make ends meet after the death of her brother William and the commitment of her mother to an insane asylum, she’s trapped in poverty and deeply unhappy. But when her lecherous boss makes a pass at her, her hidden inborn magic awakens and the evening ends with him dead, her sewing scissors in his neck.
But before Frances can be arrested as a murderess – after all, who’s going to believe the word of a poor shopgirl about the dead man at her feet? – she’s whisked away by two strange women to Haxahaven Academy, a school for witches disguised as a tuberculosis sanitarium. There, she learns that her experience isn’t as abnormal as she feared – there are plenty of other young women with magic, whose abilities have often been awakened by tragic events.
As Frances begins to learn more about her abilities – and what life as a witch means for girls like her – hints involving her brother William’s murder begin appearing in her room. Her investigation into his death introduces her to his Irish friend Finn, part of a mysterious magical gentleman’s club, and sees her seek out ways to use her power to discover what really happened to him.
Along the way she’ll violate school rules, engage in an underground boxing match, and question whether she really wants to be part of a world that often seems to be as interested in limiting women’s power as the human one she left behind.
Frances makes for an intriguing heroine – she’s smart, capable, and loyal to the girls who become her friends. But she carries an almost unknowable amount of grief and rage – anger at her brother’s murder, at a system that doesn’t seem to care what happens to poor boys disappearing, at Haxahaven for teaching magical girls to become small in order to survive a world that fears them.
The Witch Haven is dark and gritty without ever becoming grim, treating the myriad problems of life in 1911 Manhatten honestly. (Two of the girls at Haxahaven are survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.) The plot of the book also delightfully twisty – some of its narrative choices will land as genuine surprises, and though a few are easy to see coming, that doesn’t lessen the narrative impact they have. This novel is the first half of a duology and the cliffhanger that closes the book has me wildly curious about where this story and these characters go from here.
The Witch Haven is available now. Let us know if you’re planning to add this novel to your reading list!