In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.
I received this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
TW: book contains rape, violence, immolation
My actual rating for this 3.75 stars lol.
The Year of the Witching is a perfect story for an on-edge October read. It features a spooky forest, wraithlike witches, and–scariest of all–a hypocritical, patriarchal, puritanical setting.
This book was a really interesting combination of supernatural horror and horror of the human variety. I’ve seen it compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, and I think that is actually a pretty accurate likening (if The Handmaid’s Tale was also an episode of Supernatural). The story follows Immanuelle Moore, a girl who feels a strange calling to the Darkwood, a forest that is feared by the rest of her highly religious society, called Bethel. While in the forest, she has eerie encounters with ancient witches who had been shunned and burned by Bethelans hundreds of years ago.
I don’t read much horror, but when I compare this book to horror movies I’ve seen, it is definitely scarier. Letting your imagination fill in the gaps allows your brain to put its worst nightmares right alongside everything else in the pages. The spooky scenes in this book freaked me the hell out, so, in that regard, this book gets full points from me.
The setting also works very well for this book. Bethel is a settlement with vast farmland and a few small villages, surrounded completely by a monitored gate. The book takes place during an indeterminate time period and with indeterminate geography, so it’s hard to tell if it was supposed to take place in a historical era, or if it is complete fantasy. Honestly, I think this works well because it allows you to focus completely on Henderson’s world without thinking about outside politics or influences. The highly religious community in Bethel is led by a single Prophet, along with his Apostles. The Prophet, as you can probably expect, is a sleazy douchebag with absolutely nothing holy about him. It’s fascinating to see how he manipulates the townspeople using God as an excuse for his despicable behavior. There is very much of a cult mindset, so it’s interesting to see our characters fighting against that.
I think what brought the rating down for me were the characters. Immanuelle in particular just felt a bit predictable to me. Throughout the book, she is fighting between this call to the evil witches in the woods and her obligation to help the innocents in Bethel. I think the stakes of this struggle never felt high enough, it was easy to see that she would pick one side despite temptations to the other. I wanted to see her dip into darkness, I wanted to see her struggle to find her way out of it. It all felt just a little too easy. Not only that, but we also don’t see much characterization from her. Her dialogue is pretty limited, and we don’t really see much of her thoughts. She felt pretty static/boring, very much like a YA character. It would have been cool to see the perspectives of other characters, like the Prophet or Immanuelle’s mother.
Overall, this was an incredibly well-written, well-paced, and well-conceived story. It has themes of witchcraft, feminism, and rebellion that strangely work very well together. I would definitely recommend for those looking for something darker.