The Year of the Witching (2020) is the story of a young woman, Immanuelle, growing up in the religious dystopia of Bethel. (It’s never stated, but I interpreted the setting as a post-apocalyptic America.) The dominant religion, the faith of the Father, contains some elements of Christianity, but in a twisted form; for example, a real lamb is slaughtered during services. The threat of burning at the stake is used to keep people in line. Bethel is patriarchal in the extreme; it’s common for older men to take multiple younger wives. It’s also racist. Immanuelle’s late father was one of the darker-skinned Outskirters, which — along with the rumors that her mother was a witch — means she has lived under a cloud of suspicion all her life.
When Immanuelle chases one of her sheep into the mysterious Darkwood at the edge of the village, she meets a frightening pair of women: two of the four notorious witches, supposedly long dead, who threatened Bethel in the early days. They give Immanuelle her mother’s journal, which chronicles her dealings with the woods and the witches, and warns of four coming plagues: blood, blight, darkness, slaughter. Curiosity leads Immanuelle back into the woods; this time, she encounters all four witches, and when she emerges, the water of Bethel has turned to blood.
Immanuelle may be the only person who can stop the plagues, but even reading about these matters is forbidden, and if she’s caught meddling with witchcraft, it will mean a fiery death. Some unexpected help comes from Ezra, the son of Bethel’s leader. Despite his position as the Prophet’s heir, Ezra has doubts about the faith, and his status gives Immanuelle access to heretical books and other useful things. The two begin to fall in love, which further endangers them both.
Alexis Henderson effectively creates a sense of dread throughout The Year of the Witching; both the Church and the witches are terrifying. The plot moves along at a brisk pace and is full of tension. Immanuelle is easy to root for in her desire to stop the curses and Bethel’s atrocities while keeping her loved ones safe.
This is a first novel, and sometimes feels like one. Characters are inconsistent at times, changing their minds about things as the plot requires it, and the same is true of the curses in regards to their effects. I wanted to know more about the rival religion of the Mother; we know the witches were linked with it, but it’s also the everyday faith of the Outskirters — I feel like there must be a non-evil version of it, but there are only brief glimpses of what it might be like.
Finally, the book seems unsure what its message is. There are a couple of different “morals of the story,” and especially at the climax, they feel a bit at cross-purposes. Immanuelle makes a frustrating decision, but it looks like there’s going to be a payoff for it. We get to the epilogue, though, and things seem to have moved back a step in the wrong direction.
That being said, Henderson’s website indicates that a sequel is in the works, and that may address my lingering quibbles. I’ll definitely check it out. The Year of the Witching combines a great creepy atmosphere, timely issues, and a suspenseful plot, and I look forward to seeing what Henderson does next.