Alexis Henderson’s 2020 The Year of the Witching is a standalone fantasy novel.
The town of Bethel shuns the outside world, hewing to the narrow path of righteousness taught by their prophets. But one resident, Immanuelle Moore, proves that the shunning wasn’t complete: the colour of her skin makes it clear that her father was an Outsider. Her father is executed; her mother dies in childbirth; only Immanuelle is left as evidence of their crime.
Between her lover’s execution and her own death, Immanuelle’s mother vanished into the Darkwood, reappearing shortly before she died. What precisely the woman got up to in the Darkwood is a matter of superstitious conjecture. Immanuelle finds out … to her regret.
Bethel was founded when the first prophet defeated the witches of the Darkwood in fire and blood. To this day, the Darkwood has an unpleasant reputation. Immanuelle in particular has been warned by her grandparents never to venture into the Darkwood under any circumstances, a stricture she has always obeyed.
An uncooperative ram escapes into the forest. Immanuelle pursues it deep into the Darkwood and realizes her error too late. She comes face to face with the spectral witches of the forest. The witches hand her a book and let her flee. Soon after that, she has her first period. By Bethel law she is a now a grown woman. Her menarche also activates a curse upon the town of Bethel, the curse for which her mother bargained so many years ago.
The town’s water supply turns to blood. A contagion drives the pious folk mad. Immanuelle reads the book she was given, her mother’s journal, and learns that the curse will only end with the complete destruction of the town and everyone in it, save for Immanuelle herself.
Immanuelle recoils. While there are many in the town who might be said to deserve death (the current, child-molesting prophet among them), there are many who do not. They are guilty only of being born into a cult haven.
Immanuelle may be able to break the spell. To do so, she must leave Bethel and find her paternal grandmother. Leaving is forbidden, but …
I don’t really understand the worldbuilding in this book: Bethel seems to have managed to remain isolated for centuries (the occasional influx of refugees notwithstanding); the glimpse we get of the outside world doesn’t suggest any polity bigger than a city-state. Yet the technology available in Bethel appears to be at least 19th century, which implies industrialization, trade … all possible only to larger units.
The prophets aren’t con men. They wield genuine magical power. This is not an unmixed blessing; as soon as the magical powers of the next prophet manifest, the old prophet goes into a decline and dies. This has resulted in some very dysfunctional family relationships. Some prophets imitate the Roman god Saturn;
some sons, craving power, help their own dads into the grave. The prophets may have magical powers, but they are otherwise ordinary men, not notably wise, not immune to abusing their power.
Large swathes of the book examine women oppressed by a patriarchal society. For the most part, for example, women are punished for transgressions while men get a pass. That might be true of the Bethel women, but the witches of Darkwood aren’t white witches victimized by a nasty religion. The Darkwood entities aren’t women, at least not human women. They seem to be every bit as malevolent as the prophets have painted them. Indeed, both prophets and witches draw upon powers that seem indifferent to human suffering. This makes for a grim world. This is a fantasy-horror novel, not a sunny romp.
That said, the novel is skillfully written, and its characters are sympathetic enough that the reader cares what happens to them. If this is the kind of thing you like, it’s a well-done thing. I think this may be a debut novel; if so, it’s an impressive first book.