The Year of the WitchingThe Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
on July 21, 2020
Pages: 363
View Title on Goodreads
Bantering Books Rating: three-stars

The Handmaid's Tale for a new generation . . . In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet's word is law, Immanuelle Moore's very existence is blasphemy.
The daughter of a union with an outsider that cast her once-proud family into disgrace, Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol and lead a life of submission, devotion and absolute conformity, like all the women in the settlement.
But a chance mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood that surrounds Bethel - a place where the first prophet once pursued and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still walking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the diary of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by 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 realises the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her . . .

Bantering Books Review

I once read that the key to happiness is to lower one’s expectations in life. That the feeling of happiness is often more dependent upon whether life is better than originally hoped, rather than how well one’s life is flowing along overall. (Or something to that effect.)

True statement? False? I do not know.

But I am wondering if from this point forward, I should apply this theory to all future books I read and just squash any preliminary anticipation as a matter of routine. Perhaps I should assume that every book I choose to read will be dreadful – and then when one is not, I will love it even more dearly.

Because had my expectations for Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, The Year of the Witching been lower (or at least, more accurate), I suspect I would be writing a more positive review than the one I am about to write. Yet again, my hopes got the best of me.

Sixteen-year-old Immanuelle Moore lives a relatively quiet life in the lands of Bethel. As all women in the settlement, she is obedient to the word of the Prophet. She dutifully worships the Father and conforms to Holy Protocol. The product of a scandalous love affair between her mother and an outsider, she wishes to do nothing that would bring further disgrace to her family.

Until one day she is drawn into the Darkwood, the cursed forest that surrounds Bethel. There, she encounters the spirits of four dead witches who were killed inside the forest walls years ago by the very first Prophet. They present Immanuelle with the gift of her dead mother’s diary, who Immanuelle is surprised to learn once sheltered in the forest and bargained with the witches.

Grappling to make peace with the truths revealed by the diary, Immanuelle slowly begins to uncover the harsh reality of the history of the Church. The time for change has come – and for the sake of Bethel, Immanuelle will fight tooth and nail to ensure that the archaic, injurious rule of the Prophet and the Church is permanently transformed.

Unfortunately, The Year of the Witching and I started off on the wrong foot. It has been billed to readers as a Dark Fantasy/Horror novel for adults. To quote from the blurb, it is “The Handmaid’s Tale for a new generation.” Therefore, when I agreed to review it, I believed I was in store for a mature, feminist, witchy read. But it took no more than 20 pages for me to realize that while feminist and witchy, what I was instead reading was a Young Adult novel, with the typical YA tropes, lack of writing depth, and unnecessary teenage romance.

Call me disappointed, to say the least.

And I like YA. I have nothing against YA. Some of my favorite series are YA. (Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series, Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, to name a few.)

Again, it’s all about the expectation. Had the marketing not been skewed and inaccurate for The Year of the Witching, I would have read its pages with the correct mindset and not felt so disgruntled from the start.

But even after I adjusted my reading approach and shed my discontent, I still did not enjoy the beginning chunk of the novel. I came THISCLOSE to DNFing it – and here’s why:

First, the societal system of Bethel is extremely simplistic and unoriginal (men = good, women = bad; light skin = good, brown skin = bad). Secondly, the novel’s characterization is flat, and Immanuelle, particularly, is bland and unremarkable. Thirdly, Henderson’s writing is a bit heavy-handed with the horror elements in the opening chapters, as if she is trying so hard to be terrifying and grotesque. Lastly, there are numerous scenes of violence against animals and overabundant images of blood and gore. It’s a tad bit too much.

Then unexpectedly at around the halfway mark, Henderson gradually loosens the reins on the narrative, eases up on the horrific aspect of her writing, and gives the narrative room to breathe. And just like that, quick as a finger snap, The Year of the Witching rebounds and becomes a somewhat engrossing, entertaining read. But the memory of the rough start is not easily shaken.

I will say, Henderson certainly knows how to create a memorable setting and atmosphere. Bethel and the Darkwood are vividly depicted on the page; the greenery, the villages, the cathedrals are all brought to life through her writing. Her prose is graceful and lyrical. And despite occasional instances of repetitive phrasing and vocabulary choice, there are moments of true beauty in her words.

If only Henderson, however, had thought to put the same amount of effort into writing her characters as she did into setting the scene. As I mentioned earlier, the characterization in The Year of the Witching is sorely inadequate and lacking in depth. It is difficult to care for or feel concern for the welfare of anyone in the novel. Immanuelle, the Prophet, Ezra (the obligatory love interest), the secondary characters . . . they are all as insubstantial as cut-out dolls.

And the witches of the Darkwood – they are so paper thin and flimsily drawn that they are not in any way frightening. They come across as hokey, cartoonish caricatures at best.

Furthermore, for being cast as the heroine of the story, Immanuelle is unmemorable and insipid. She has moments of incongruent behavior and inconsistent thoughts. Sometimes she seems older than her age; sometimes she forgets and relearns information that she was previously told ten pages prior. Immanuelle also conveniently solves mysteries, finds answers to her questions, and learns the ways of magic at precisely the right time, every time. It’s too effortless.

In the end, The Year of the Witching does claw its way to the top, proving itself to be an enjoyable enough, compelling enough YA read. But it is not the second coming of The Handmaid’s Tale. (No. Not even close.) My recommendation to read it is given with many, many attached reservations.

(Psst! Read Katherine Arden’s gorgeous Winternight Trilogy instead. Or better yet – just read The Handmaid’s Tale.)

I received an Advanced Readers Copy from Edelweiss and Ace in exchange for an honest review. All opinions included herein are my own.