I'm just going to get right to the point. 'Witches Steeped in Gold' by Ciannon Smart is the most enjoyable witchy fantasy book I've ever read. There is depth and texture here that's decidedly uncommon in similarly marketed titles.
I know there's been a lot of hype surrounding this title for months. I, myself, have been just as much a part of that hype engine as any other reader I know.. because it sounded so good. However, it absolutely blew the doors off the genre for me.
A Jamaican-inspired fantasy, the story is about a pair of witches from rival orders who have little choice but to make a pact in order to take down a common enemy. Told in a split-narrative, it follows Iraya.. who has spent her life in captivity plotting her vengeance and Jazmyne, the Queen's daughter.. with her own brand of retribution on her mind.
Both women have endured heavy losses at the Queen's hand and neither of them is apt to forgive or forget, but their paths are ever-shifting and the only thing that's certain is they will do anything to achieve their goals.
Honestly, I cannot possibly convey exactly how much I loved this book. From a pure writing quality perspective, it's quite likely sitting in my top two releases so far this year and it would take a truly groundbreaking read to dislodge it. I fully expect to be giving my 2021 year-end recap with Smart's debut novel sitting right where it is today.
The magic system is complex, seemingly based largely in the ritual magics of the Caribbean. Primarily focusing on blood and herb magics, the story reads almost like a folktale at times. As my personal experiences are with a different variation, I cannot theorize too much about the actual source other than to reiterate that the author herself has said much of her inspiration came from stories told by family on a trip to Jamaica.
Everything is detailed ideally throughout the world-building and delivered naturally. From the political structure of the court to the social-ecological models both within and between Aiyca and the neighboring cultures, it's all crafted so perfectly. The result is an incredibly immersive tale.
Challenges rise up to meet the women everywhere and I found myself conflicted throughout, unable to fully commit to some of my choices until late in the story. There are twists strewn about all the way to the end of the tale, but never so many that they feel overused.
Besides Iraya and Jazmyne, there's a whole cadre of supporting players in the game. Some of whom I enjoyed as much as the main characters. Kirdan, Anya, and Roje are all spectacular in their own ways, as are those in the small group of friends amongst the Obeah.
Admittedly, I did have favorites from the start. Kirdan is intriguing and Iraya is my kind of female lead. She's not infallible, but she is determined. She doesn't back down easily and she's not afraid to get her hands dirty. In fact, she rather likes them dirty. Bloodied.. whenever possible.
I'm already eagerly awaiting book two and if this isn't on your TBR list yet, it should be. In fact, you could probably brush aside most of whatever else is there and push it towards the top because if you haven't read it yet, you're missing out.
(I received this title as an ARC, but also purchased 3 copies. All opinions are mine and freely given.)