Ciannon Smart’s 2021 Witches Steeped in Gold is a young-adult secondary-universe fantasy novel. It is Smart’s debut novel.
A decade before the novel opens, Judair Cariot, Witches Council Doyenne, deposed Empress Cordelia Adair. In the ten years since, Judair has ruled the island of Aiyca with an iron hand. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. Which could be a grave, as was true for more than one of the Adair clan.
Judair’s despised daughter Jazmyne is as unhappy as anyone with her mother’s punitive rule. She has covertly joined the resistance. Which would be a death sentence in itself, were she to be found out, but … there’s another reason to be afraid. Judair is as ruthless to her family as she is to her subjects. Judair sacrificed her own daughter, Jazmyne’s sister Madisyn, after deciding that Madisyn wasn’t fit for purpose. Jazmyne might be next.
Jazmyne is proceeding according to a cautious, methodical plan. This is about to be junked by a huge monkey-wrench of a development.
Although Judair massacred the former rulers and subjugated their Obeah, the ruler is aware that her island has enemies and that Obeah magic has always been, and continues to be, a necessary defence. She drafts Obeah practitioners to form magical defense corps. But because she fears an uprising almost as much as she does an enemy invasion. the draftees are poorly equipped and closely monitored.
Judair is unpleasantly surprised to discover that the prisoner using the name Ira is more properly known as Iraya Adair, Cordelia Adair’s daughter. After the demise of her mom, she’s the rightful empress. Off with her head? Well, no. She has magical powers that could be useful. All witnesses to Iraya’s unmasking are executed and Iraya herself is bound in a web of spells that should keep her compliant.
Jazmyne also realizes that Iraya could be a useful ally. Both agree that Judair has to go. Who is to rule after that? Well, whoever knifes the former ally first.
Unless Aiyca’s external enemies strike first.
Sometimes autocrats end up in power because they are especially cunning. Sometimes they gain power because the previous rulers were, how to put it? not graced with foresight. Judair seems to be the second sort of autocrat. She saw a chance and took it, but she is more ruthless and brutal than insightful. She hasn’t realized that she has given her surviving daughter good reasons to topple her.
I wish I could say that one of the two allies (Jazmyne or Iraya) believed in democracy and sound public policy. No such luck. Whoever wins, Aiyca won’t be flirting with democracy any time soon. Which perception has a great deal to do with my lukewarm feelings toward this book. I don’t care to read about the travails of autocrats and would-be autocrats. (Though I must admit that I were to refuse to read any autocrat-focused SFF books, I wouldn’t have much left to read. Dammit.)
Politics aside, Witches’ Jamaican-inspired setting is unusual, arranged as it is along lines entirely different from the generic faux-feudalism assumed by most commercial fantasy.
Also, the book is competently written. It’s clearly book one of a series (whose name I could not find) and I might just decide to read the next book. Or I might not.