Happy Halloween! Out of the many staple characters that pop up every Halloween–the ghosts, the vampires, the mummies, etc.–few have the depth and diversity as the ever-evolving, always enchanting witch. One of the last vestiges of Pagan culture to remain with us, the witch is a reminder of feminine power, of matriarchy, and of the dark histories that have accompanied these women throughout the ages. In honor then of the witch and all she represents, enjoy this round-up of recent and older tales that are steeped in the world of witchcraft and witch lore.
Let’s begin with one of the great classics of Pagan-inspired literature and, by many accounts, the best retelling of the Arthurian legend, Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. The book (and series) relives the events of King Arthur’s court through the eyes of the women involved, namely Morgaine, Gwynhwyfar, Morgause, and Viviane. Largely the story of Morgaine, a sorceress and Priestess, the book is notable not only for its overt feminism but also for providing such a rich, emotionally layered, and ultimately thrilling story centered on the dynamics of power–between men and women, Christianity and Paganism, love and duty. Written for adults, it is entirely suitable for older teens many of which will devour it in one sitting!
Lynne Ewing’s series, Daughters of the Moon (a YALSA Quick Pick), is an older series that deserves to be rediscovered by current teens! It follows the lives of four teenage girls who each possess special abilities because they are daughters of Goddesses. They are destined to fight an ancient evil named The Atrox, a task that drives the majority of the plotline. The series offers a nice blend of romance and adventure, while also realistically exploring the ins and outs of teenage life. Great for both middle and high school students, this epic urban fantasy is a quick read that is sure to appeal to lovers of the Mortal Instruments and Bloodlines.
Rachel Hawkins’ incredibly popular series, Hex Hall (2011 Teens’ Top Ten and 2012 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults), is just the right combination of sarcasm, sorcery, and smart. The sarcasm is all due to the highly engaging and entirely authentic Sophie Mercer, the 16-year-old protagonist of the series. Sent to Hex Hall, a school for juvenile delinquents of the paranormal variety, by her mother, Sophie must learn to control her powers while simultaneously navigating the treacherous social seas of her new home. Elements of the book will certainly remind readers of Harry Potter but Hawkins is careful to carve out a unique trajectory for her narrator that is both compelling and thought-provoking.
Next on the list is the best-selling All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, a series written for adults but that has been immensely popular with my juniors and seniors. I like to think of the series as Twilight written for intellectuals and feminists. It tells the story of a Diana Bishop, a historian and academic, who is also- much to her dismay- a witch. While doing research for her book on alchemy, she stumbles upon an ancient manuscript which purportedly contains the answer to some of the central mysteries of the universe. The discovery of the book sets into motion an epic tale involving vampires, daemons, many of the great historical figures of the past, and a super steamy forbidden love affair. It’s an immensely readable, intelligent, and satisfying romp…be warned though, it ends on quite a cliffhanger!
For a completely different approach to witches, try Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults). I am a big fan of Lanagan’s previous novel Tender Morsels and her most recent book does not disappoint in terms of craft or content. It is the story of a lonely young woman, Misskaella, who has the ability to call forth human forms from the bodies of seals; she uses her powers to bring forth wives for the men in her village willing to pay a high price. Although a dark topic and tale, the extraordinary beauty of Lanagan’s prose and the deep insights she makes about human nature and the intersections between love and despair, compassion and cruelty make this one of the most unique YA novels I’ve read in a long while.
I’ll end with a witchcraft book that centers on a male protagonist just to add a little variety to the mix. Half Bad by Sally Green has gotten a lot of press since its publication last year and it’s not hard to see why. Not for the faint-hearted, the book revolves around sixteen-year-old Nathan, the product of a White and Black witch. In the world of the novel, White witches are good and Black witches are evil which leaves Nathan in a socially precarious and emotionally wrenching position. To make matters worse, his father is the most infamous of Black witches, responsible for the deaths of hundreds. The novel is rife with violence, darkness, and abuse, and yet also embraces themes of redemption, survival, and the ambiguity inherent in both good and evil.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of books about witches and witchcraft. Let me know if I’ve missed any of your favorites!
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading The Martian by Andy Weir