A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet's word is law, Immanuelle Moore's very existence is blasphemy. Her mother's union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.
When I first looked over the synopsis for this novel, I was intrigued, especially given the title and the idea of how the author would delve into witches. As my interests lay in that area, I'm always curious to find out if witches will be presented accurately, or if writers will fall into the trap of writing them as evil. While some of the presentation falls into some of those stereotypes, in other ways, this is not at all what I expected and the story ends up being powerful and profoundly engaging.
One of the reasons for the story being unexpected is that it is far less a story of witches and far more about a young woman on the hero's journey to embrace her own strength and power to create change and overcome the evils that truly exist, that of man and his desire for power and control, to keep women bound by pain and suffering and to rule by using faith to control others.
While most of the novel uses the framework of a Christian-style worship, including references to the Father and with men in power, there are also references to the Mother and it is the woman who is the protagonist of the novel, discovering the truth and her own power to bring about change. While I'm not fond of the proto-Christian setting personally, I found the author's use of that framework to be integral to the character development and the plot. It also made the main character, Emmanuelle, sympathetic and engaging. Without the backdrop of the faithful, her plight and journey would not be anywhere near as important and her fight would lack meaning. It is her desire for the truth and to fight back that makes her such an interesting and compelling character.
One of the other reasons that I found Emmanuelle interesting is that she is part Bethel and part outsider, a race that is described with curly hair and dark skin. While not explicitly stating that the character is Black, the use of a person of color gives us a strong diversity and counterpoint to the blond and white characters of Bethel. It does stretch into the boundary of presenting that diversity as other but since those stereotypes and racism are part of the story's point, I found it utilized well to make that point.
All of the characters are well-written. They are none of them painted as simple, all of them three dimensional including the antagonist, the leader of the church. All of the characters are those that make choices, for good or ill, trying to do what they think are best or what will gain them power but none are presented as flat or just evil. I truly appreciated such well-rounded characters along with a hero's journey that is taken by a woman of color discovering her own power.
The only slight fault I found was that the magic, while utilized well in the plot and had some points well-thought-out, was at times more shallow and I would have liked more of an in depth look of how the magic is created in the world. I also would have liked more about the Mother and if all those who follow her have the dark practices that are portrayed by the witches in the novel. While the witches' reasoning ends with being explained in the story, I did want to know more of the world.
Overall, if you like complex characters with female heroes of color, I completely recommend this as long as you also enjoy a Christ-like framework and faith. While I still found the characters and the story compelling and engaging, I wondered what it would have been without that framework. I did truly love the power of a woman developing her own strength and enduring trials to come to power. Emmanuelle is such an engaging hero that I wanted to know more about her and her world.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars ~~ Andrea Rittschof