UK Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre: YA fantasy
Within the boroughs of London, nestled among its streets, hides another city, filled with magic.
‘Magic and love. Love and magic. They destroy everything in the end …’
Anna’s Aunt has always warned her of the dangers of magic. Its twists. Its knots. Its deadly consequences.
Now Anna counts down the days to the ceremony that will bind her magic forever.
Until she meets Effie and Attis.
They open her eyes to a London she never knew existed. A shop that sells memories. A secret library where the librarian feeds off words. A club where revellers lose themselves in a haze of spells.
But as she is swept deeper into this world, Anna begins to wonder if her Aunt was right all along.
Is her magic a gift … or a curse?
Do you ever stumble across something and you know without a doubt that if you had found it when you were younger, you would have been obsessed with it? One I can think of is those cat-ear hairbands (and I’m grateful forever that they didn’t exist when I was a tween-teen, because OH BOY). Another is The Craft, which I saw for the first time the other year and was certain that it would have become my entire personality if I had watched it when I was 16. The same is true of this novel.
This is a strange book that opens with a quite intense and cruel introduction to its world. I actually found it quite hard to place the time period it was set in for a lot longer than I would have expected, because Anna’s home life is so cold and formal. I felt that perhaps this was a Victorian piece, where the stiffness was expected and the harsh punishments wouldn’t seem to out of place, so I was startled when it turned into a contemporary novel. I will warn that there is a lot of child abuse in this, some of it feeling quite extreme, and it could be very triggering, because the narrative voice is fantastically rich and visceral, which means some of the brutal punishments Anna receives from her aunt throughout the book are extremely painful to read.
I mention The Craft particularly because what happens, when Effie and Attis appear, is that you almost get two different novels. The first is a dark fantasy mystery novel, around the mysterious death of Anna’s parents and the apparent mass suicide of a coven of witches found hanging from Big Ben. This is a fascinating and chilling insight into the wider world of witchcraft that Anna has been kept from by her aunt, with a real mystery that slowly unravels dark secrets and leads to sinister revelations. The other plotline is a dark teen witch movie, almost exactly along the lines of The Craft, where Anna – naive and overly sheltered – is coaxed into forming a coven with Effie and two other girls at school: Rowan, the garden witch, and Miranda, the Christian fundamentalist who is in denial about her true nature. Effie’s dark charisma mirrors that of Nancy from The Craft, walking the line between rebellious and outright unhinged, never sure whether her actions can be read as malicious or just thoughtless and unintentionally cruel. The newly-formed coven even begins testing their powers with an homage to the “light as a feather, stiff as a board” scene.
Both storylines are strong, but I’ll be honest that as an adult I felt more interested in the dark murder mystery than in the witchy teen drama. I struggled to relate to the school experience – that of an exclusive private single-gender school sixth form, with a partner boys’ school with who they share classes, in London, but for some reason it read to me more like an American TV high school flavour of interpersonal bullying and drama. I say this as someone who went to an all-girls’ school (admittedly, state rather than private) with a partner boys’ school with whom we shared classes during sixth form; however I also say this as someone for whom sixth form was… longer ago than I care to admit (cough2006graduatecough). Things may well have changed since I was at school, but I also did feel I recognised a lot of the dynamics from the teen media from the USA I used to watch back then. This is why I felt that, as a teenager, I perhaps would have been obsessed with the school-based timeline and rejected the darker murder mystery side of the book.
I loved the different styles of magic that Thomas introduces in the story, the different styles of coven and the way magic expresses itself – the garden witches, the memory witches, the musical witches, the binders for all their sinister and culty beliefs (or perhaps because of them, as it made them supremely chilling). I loved the vintage shop which sold magic memories, the club which transcended mortal understanding… There was so much of this world that I wanted to explore which gave magic its depth, both for better or worse, and I wanted to see more of it. Perhaps this is also why I felt like the in-school threads were less interesting to me, it felt like space that could have been used to give me more of the bits I really enjoyed. I also felt like some of the characters gave up their resistance to Effie’s coven plans rather more easily than I would have liked – seeing more of an exploration of Miranda’s difficulty overcoming her religious upbringing clashing with the existence of magic would have been fascinating, and I would have liked more of a fight from Anna given the actual real consequences she could face. This is explored a little, but I think it was felt that this was not the key point of the narration, and given the sheer amount of other content that is jammed in here, I guess I can understand why!
One of the other things I really enjoyed about this was the way Thomas leaned into the grey areas of morality and magic, of Anna trying to find herself and her power when she has been battered with evangelical teachings about the evils of her powers all her life. She’s trying to find the truth of magic but also of herself, and set up her own moral code while being fed wildly different opinions from those around her. She feels entirely alone, and has to try and decode the messages around her. It’s a fascinating process to see her work through, and Thomas doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of it to try and make Anna look good. Anna is as flawed as the people around her, and is working on far less information, so she has to try and build her own sense of right and wrong.
The ending is interesting. While, to all intents and purposes, most of the main mysteries are tied up, an overarching issue doesn’t quite get addressed, and we are given a sense of a much wider world of magic and witchy politics that Anna has yet to discover. This is the first of at least a trilogy – potentially more based on the original contract. There’s a lot more to unwind here, and that feeling is very clear once you reach the ending.
While I’m not sure Adult Me will be interested in reading the rest of the stories, I’m certain that Teenage Me would have been a very loyal reader. If you loved The Craft, if dark, contemporary fantasy with unique and interesting magical lore is your bag, and you don’t mind a bit of teen drama around it, this is probably a series you will love.
- A rich and vivid exploration of witchcraft set in modern London, with a fascinating style of magic and some rich, wonderful details.
- It’s a novel of two halves, and where I would have preferred more of the dark murder mystery with exploration of the wider magic world, you may love the interpersonal tension and exploration of coven dynamics between the characters.
- Be warned, the vividness of the writing means that the depiction of domestic abuse from the aunt to Anna could be very triggering. It goes into a fair amount of detail, and it gets quite dark and brutal. Look after yourself when reading this.