Trigger and Content Warnings: This book features vomit, blood, gun violence, mutilation of corpses, historical abuse of Native Americans, and attempted rape.
I'm a bit of a sucker for any books involving witches, but The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith in particular sounded like it was written for me. Witches, a magic school, and a murder mystery? All I needed to hear to have me immediately ordering myself a copy. And what a story! Exciting and gripping, I really enjoyed it!
Frances is weighed down by the grief of losing her brother, William, four months ago, murdered and thrown into the river. The police have no leads, and it looks like his murder will go unsolved. When Frances is attacked by her boss late one night, she accidentally kills him when her seamstress shears fly through the air and embed themselves in his neck. Soon after, two "nurses" show up to take her to Haxahaven, a school for witches disguised as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. The discovery of magic and her own power leaves Frances stunned and thrilled, especially when she realises magic might help her to solve William's murder. But Haxahaven is a school that teaches control and safety, not how to fully embrace your magic, and soon feels like a prison. When she discovers notes being left for her on her pillow, pushing her to fight for justice, she meets Finn, a boy who was friends of her brother with magic of his own, who wants to help her figure out what happened to William. He agrees to teach her and her new friends Maxine and Lena how to use their power, casting spells from an ancient spell book Maxine, a Finder, found buried in the woods. One that includes a spell of resurrection - a way to contact the dead. Frances is desperate to learn and grow to be strong enough for the complicated spell and find out who killed William, but her growing power has come to the attention of a rival secret society of magicians that covet power in all forms, putting her and her friends in danger. Frances must decide where her loyalties lie and who to trust, before her world goes spinning out of control.
The Witch Haven is a bit of a slow burner, but one that was completely captivating. It's hard not to compare a book with a magic school to other famous magic schools, but Haxahaven is not what I was expecting at all. It's a school of it's time. If those with magic don't use their power, it can turn inward and cause them to go mad. But these witches are still women who live in a time where they are to be seen and not heard. The school teaches it's students how to use small magics for household chores, and nothing more. Small ways they can use their power to keep themselves sane, but without being anything other than proper ladies. They have another class on how to control their emotions - which is just a lesson where the teacher gets the students to relive traumatic experiences over and over again - to prevent magical outbursts caused by strong emotion. Rather than learning how to utilise her magic, Frances is taught how to smother it, and the thrill of discovering she's a witch and has magical ability soon wears thin.
The lights in Frances' life that make it all bearable are Maxine and Lena, the friends Frances makes. There's a strong theme of sisterhood in The Witch Haven, of the bonds of friendship. I loved both Maxine and Lena, but I do wish we got to know them better. When the spell book is discovered, and when Frances meets the mysterious note leaver and discovers it's Finn, the focus for Frances is on getting to the point where she can perform the resurrection spell. We don't really get to know many of the characters besides Frances as well as I would have liked, as time passes quickly. For a while, not a huge amount happens. Frances grows in frustration at her classes and how restrictive they are, and in impatience to cast the resurrection spell, while she sneaks out each week with Maxine and Lena to practice magic with Finn, and figure out how they're going to get what they need for the spell once they're ready.
Even though it's slower paced than some books, and not a huge deal happens for a while outside a few things I can't discuss, I was still captivated by this story. Maxine is confident and full of spunk, and just so funny, and Lena is loyal and brave, but a little more responsible, and I just loved the three girls' friendship and seeing them interact together. Saying that, the mystery element really gets you questioning things, and I got to a point where I didn't know who to trust and started suspecting almost everyone, even when I didn't have anything concrete to pin it on. The entire time, you just know there's more going on than Frances realises, that there's more to Haxahaven and the disturbing Sons of Saint Druon, the secret society of magicians and other powerful men. When more bodies of boys are found in the river, Frances becomes certain this is bigger than just her brother. But neither she nor we have any real clue. I read with discomfort filled with a quiet buy persistent thread of dread. Things were going to get bad, and I didn't know why or how or who it would involve, but you could just feel it creeping ever closer, and feeling like every decision made was potentially a bad one. I was just constantly wondering what the hell was going on, and worried for the three girls. I couldn't put it down until I figured it out, and I knew the truth.
But then things really pick up. The last quarter of the book is epic. Things kick off in a big way and there are shocks and twists around every corner. I knew something wasn't right, but I didn't really know. I never could have guessed just how bad things were until the crap hit the fan. Oh my god, it was gripping and incredible, but so twisted and sinister, and just incredibly messed up! It was a case of jaw dropping twists where your jaw just keeps dropping lower and lower as things just get worse. I couldn't believe it even as it was happening, and it was terrible and tense and disturbing, with no clue as to how things would end. It was just absolutely brilliant!
I loved how The Witch Haven is quite feminist, and how things were so unfair for women at the time, that there were expectations for all women, even those with money. And I also loved how diverse this story is! It touches on the subject of poverty, as Frances is quite poor, and before Haxahaven, most people she knew were, too. Lena is Native American, and tells of her childhood forced into a school run by nuns, and the horrific treatment of the children attending said school, and of her tribe - and how she was taken away again to attend Haxahaven. No labels are used, but Maxine likes girls. And Haxahaven takes all girls.
'"Haxahaven is rather good at finding every magical girl in the area. Rich, poor, any race, from any neighborhood, girls whose parents thought they were boys upon birth, girls who are only sometimes girls, girls who are still deciding, people who are neither boys nor girls. We train them all. The men are left to their own devices. They do what men do."' (p74-75)
The way The Witch Haven ended, it looks very much like there's more to come, so I think we can safely bet on a sequel, and I'm so excited! I very much look forward seeing where Frances' story takes her next, because this was epic! I highly recommend this twisty and sinister magical murder mystery!