Title: The Year of the Witching
Series: Bethel #1
Author: Alexis Henderson
Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.
Immanuelle Moore only wants to be a normal young woman in Bethel’s society and follow Protocol and the Prophet’s word just like anyone else, but she has always been frowned upon for being the result of a union between her mother and an outsider.
When a mishap lures her into the dark forest that surrounds Bethel, she encounters the spirits of four witches that were slain on those grounds by the first Prophet, and they bestow a gift on her: her own mother’s diary.
Immanuelle sets to reading her mother’s words, but what begins as the diary of a young woman in love soon turns to something darker and worrisome. Immanuelle doesn’t understand everything, but one thing is clear: if she wants to save Bethel, she needs to get to the bottom of what happened before she was born.
A closer look
For a book marketed as Adult and as the new Handmaid’s Tale, this was a bit underwhelming. But as a YA witchy story, it was actually quite good.
We open the story with a prologue set on the night of Immanuelle’s birth. A few things are clear from the start: this is a pseudo-puritan society, in which unions outside of wedlock are frowned upon, but it’s normal to take more than one wife; women are inferior to men; and the Father bestows random gifts to some people, while the Mother makes witches out of women and is evil – or something along that line.
For example, the Prophet has the gift of Vision, which means that he has, uh, visions, from time to time; Immanuelle’s grandmother has the gift of Naming, which means that when a child is born she is revealed the name of the newborn. I’m not sure how that’s useful exactly, but hey, it might become important later, right?
Well, kinda, but also kinda not.
Time for a bit of information about the world.
Bethel is flanked for the large part by a forest said to corrupt people, or steal them, and to house the spirits of four powerful witches that were slain by the first Prophet. Where there’s no forest, a wall has been built, with gates that are kept closed unless they receive instructions from the Prophet himself. On the outskirts of society live the Outsiders, which are basically black people who worshipped the Mother but, due to their proximity with Bethel, have been shunned by society if not forced to change religion entirely. They are poor and treated like dirt, basically, or ignored if they’re lucky.
Immanuelle is mixed race, so she never felt like a part of either groups; she also feels called to the forest, but due to her grandmother’s warnings and the rumours that anyone who goes into the forest is lost forever, she never sets foot in it – until she loses the ram she was supposed to sell, and ventures between the trees in the hope of finding it again.
What she finds instead are the witches from the story, but rather than hurting her, they give her something: her mother’s diary. This is really when the story picks up: reading the diary, Immanuelle sheds light on the last year of her mother’s life, on what happened to her, and she discovers something terrifying: her mother words promise disaster upon Bethel. Determined to stop it, Immanuelle embarks on a mission to discover what’s really going on, uncovering secrets not only about her own past, but the history of the settlement itself.
The mystery is interesting, but not exactly mindblowing or shocking. It’s a society with really strict rules and a history of burning people at the stakes (and not only witches, apparently), so is it really that surprising to discover that some things that had been done in the past are kind of horrible?
The characters are functional, but not extremely fleshed out; even the protagonist comes off as a little bland and not always 100% consistent with herself. The relationship she develops with Ezra is also a little weird: they’re supposed to be something like enemies to lovers (she’s the outcast and he is the heir of the Prophet), but what actually comes off the pages is Ezra being insistent in wanting Immanuelle to spend time with him/be his friend, and Immanuelle treating him like dirt until she realises he can be useful to her, in which case she gifts him with her company in exchange for what she needs. I’m not sure how this is supposed to be romantic? I just felt like she was using him, and he was breaking rules, getting in trouble and basically digging himself in a hole just to have the chance to spend some time with her – for which reason, I cannot fathom.
Even the Prophet turns out to be almost cartoonish in his actions. It could have been fun if it wasn’t trying to be so serious. I didn’t like the way his character was built, and not because he was a “bad person”, but because his actions didn’t really make sense.
It’s also a bit underwhelming when Immanuelle gets everything she needs right when she needs it, with perfect timing and little to no effort. She needs to dive into a pond but Bethel’s women are forbidden from learning to swim? No problem! Immanuelle knows how to do it because her friend taught her in secret! She needs to get out of Bethel? Don’t worry, Ezra will sign a permit for her, and even if she’s chased along the way, she will manage to get through the gate without a scratch. It’s a bit too convenient or well timed.
I didn’t realise it at first while I was reading because luckily I was engrossed in the story, but thinking back on it I can see that this happened often enough to deserve a brief mention. I will also say that I didn’t love the writing style: sometimes it tries to be poetic but it just feels over the top, and some expressions or descriptions are repeated endlessly. I’m sure there has to be a different way to say that blood pools in the hollow of someone’s ears.
There were also a few other details that pulled me out of the story. It’s nothing major, but as always the rational part of my brain likes to analyse some things in too much detail. I’ll just write down a couple of examples to explain what I mean, so you can judge by yourself if that’s something that might bother you, or if I’m just being too picky here.
First off, we are told that Immanuelle’s family struggles to put food on the table because of her grandfather’s expensive medicines and their little income, so one night the dinner is described as a soup that is more water than anything else. But the morning after Immanuelle is having breakfast and she throws her crusts to the ram. Hello? That’s not something a hungry person would do, especially since sheep can do very well without that kind of food.
Later on, there seems to be a weird fascination with punishment that has to do with hands. A character is burned on the palm of the hand with a hot iron; another one is forced to close his fist around the blade of a dagger and cuts himself – which not only prevents him from using the hand until it heals, but might cause permanent damage if the cut reached the nerves. Isn’t that a bit stupid in a society where most of the people do manual labour? There are other ways to carry out punishment that don’t leave your people useless for a time, or maimed for life.
This are just the first things that come to mind, but they were not isolated instances.
On the positive side, after a rather slow start the pacing picks up nicely and the mystery is well developed, and that’s probably the biggest reason why I read through the book in a couple of sittings.
The story can also be read a standalone, even though there are a couple of minor details left unexplained or unexplored – and the second book is actually scheduled to come out later this year, so I guess we’ll see if it’s going to answer those questions or go in an entirely different direction.
Some of the images in the book were really beautiful: I found a few scenes and ideas here and there to be original and well crafted. The book still reads as a young adult to me, with all the steps and tropes that one comes to expect from the genre; aside from a couple of scenes that might be too graphic for a sensitive reader – especially if you don’t like the sight of blood – I don’t think it’s really so scary or gritty, and the style is very accessible as well. It’s in that in-between area between Adult and YA where I would easily put The Bone Shard Daughter as well.
So to wrap this thing up, I liked the story and the mystery, but the characters were a bit bland for my taste and there were a few details here and there that pulled me out of the story. I still really enjoyed it though, so if you’re looking for a witchy story set in a puritanical society, this book might just be the right one for you.