Does the New Sisters of Salem Series Cast a Spell?

Wednesday Books was kind enough to send me a very nice package for the Cast authors (P.C. & Kristin) debut novel in the new “Sisters of Salem” series. This package was so pretty, and I know they say not to judge a book by its’ cover, but I mean, look at that book cover:

To say I was excited may be a slight understatement. This book has a big marketing push, is written by established authors, and it involves magic and twins, the former of which is intriguing and can be done very well in literature, the latter of which are interesting to me, particularly in terms of magic.

I really wanted to like this book — but for various reasons, I did not. However, I think that I come from a very specific viewpoint that I can see is biased in certain ways, so if the idea of twin sisters who come from a line of witches dating back to Salem sounds interesting and you are okay with a few spoilers, please read on to see if it could be a fit for you, as I will try to explain what I didn’t like and why I didn’t like it, the latter of which may very well not be applicable to you.

#hearmeout

Let me start by telling you about myself in high school. In tenth grade, I kind of began to have a thing for witches – fictional and historical. The idea of magic is captivating; even if you don’t think it’s real, it is fun to pretend. And the ways that people get out of control and start blaming people for using magic to cause all of their problems, even if it’s just a wet dream, is fascinating (and frightening, once you start seeing parallels occurring in the current world, and have to wonder how civilized we all actually are…). So I read numerous books on the Salem Witch Trials, including one that claimed maybe the first girls to exhibit symptoms in Salem actually had a very rare illness that was not known about at the time.

In addition, I am a person who believes that it is okay to write historical fiction, but important to remain true to the historical facts that are known or make it very clear that the author(s) has(ve) chosen to explore a hypothetical or changed things in order to make a certain point in his/her/their story, etc.

The Casts are inarguably exploring a hypothetical – what if there was a real witch charged in the Salem Witch Trials who escaped, and her magic continued to present-day generations? My issue is that this hypothetical specifically says – what if Sarah Good, one of the first women accused of being a witch, was actually a witch, and escaped with her daughter Dorcas, who was 4 at the time and also accused of being a witch, and fled to Illinois and started a town where their line continued to present-day.

But Sarah Good was one of the 19 people hanged for the crime of being a witch.

If this work is a sweeping historical re-write, I would like her actual tragic death acknowledged somewhere, so that impressionable youngsters with poor research skills or lack of curiosity don’t somehow get the idea that this woman managed to escape. (In a similar vein, I think Disney was recklessly irresponsible in making Pocahontas, a movie designed for impressionable youngsters who may not have ever attended a history class the impression that an actual 12-year-old girl who bravely stood up for a stranger who her father wanted to kill (and who can blame him – I mean, look at what white people did to America and the people who were already living there when they discovered it…) was a 17-year-old head-over-heels in love.)

Sarah Good was a woman who grew up in an affluent family and fell into desperate poverty throughout her life. Forced to live off of other people’s charity, she was bitter and unsociable, which made her an easy target when the town began looking for scapegoats to help explain why their lives sucked. She had to sit in a courtroom and hear numerous people, including her then 4-year-old daughter, spin lies about her before being thrown into prison, where she accrued debt to be treated terribly for a crime of which she wasn’t guilty. She had to witness her own young daughter condemned of the same crime and thrown into prison. She gave birth and witnessed her baby die, likely due to malnutrition and poor conditions in the prison. She was then hauled off in a cart like a piece of livestock, hauled up a ladder, and pushed off. Sarah suffered, and she may have bravely called out the people who were killing her on their bullshit before she was pushed. Her last selfish thoughts probably consisted of hoping that her neck broke, which would make her death quick, since if it didn’t, the people gathered to watch the crime would gleefully watch her slowly strangle. She didn’t live to see the end of the trials, including her daughter’s release from prison (after 8.5 months), nor to witness her daughter’s severe psychological damage from the entire experience.

I can see the temptation to write a better ending for Sarah and Dorothy. But I take issue with the fact that it is never stated, that I can identify, that this fictional novel is based on re-writing the ending of the Salem experience for Sarah and Dorothy (also called “Dorcas” because the jackass who wrote her name on the arrest warrant was bad at spelling), who actually had a much different experience.

On a related and very specific note, the book opens with Sarah listening to the sounds of her shitty male neighbors building a gallows and desperately doing what she can to try to get her daughter and herself the hell out of town. Yet, as I previously stated, Salem didn’t use a gallows. They put a ladder up against a very tall tree, forced the “witch” up the ladder, put the noose around their neck, and pushed them off. I guess the sounds of a dude putting a tall ladder together or rummaging through his storage shed to find it aren’t quite as tension-building, but again, I’m a stickler, so I read “gallows” and was immediately annoyed.

I didn’t like the way the characters were written. The twins on whom the series currently seems set to focus feel hollow, possibly due to the fact that this novel is the first in a series (I’ll get to this potential in a minute), possibly because the authors really wanted to quickly establish the characters so they could get to the plot. The problem is, for a book/series that feels like it should be pretty plot-heavy, we spend a lot of time with these characters and the internal thoughts of these characters, rather than the focus being on the things that happen to the characters. And Hunter and Mercy are fucking annoying. To be fair, not a deal-breaker for a teenage girl character. Some teenage girls are annoying (I was one of them). But the girls in this book are annoying, while at the same time not feeling real. The twins can pretty much be summed up in one phrase each:

  • Mercy = the shallow, popular one
  • Hunter = the moody, ambitious one

We are introduced to Hunter first. Hunter is the “ugly” twin, because, you know, she wears her hair in a ponytail. She is also pretentious as fuck. She desperately wants to be a writer, but doesn’t, you know, actually want to write (which I actually somewhat empathize with, because my own aspiring novel is currently languishing on the alphasmart with an abysmal word count… #notimportant). She needs you to know that she’s not like other girls/teenagers, even in her own thoughts. The fact that being a witch is inherent to her is brought across in such a confusing sentence, I underlined it (I’ll abstain from publishing herein, since my copy is not final, and the words may change). And she’s super judgy of the way her twin dances, which she compares to “a stripper.” (It’s ok, though, guys, because the third person narration agrees with Hunter’s assessment, as does Hunter’s best friend Jax, who is presumably in love with her twin since Hunter’s a lesbian. Slut-shaming is supes fun – let’s all do it!)

Mercy we sort of get to know later, but basically, she’s beautiful and she knows it. She’s dating a hot football player, she likes attention, she can’t handle… anything. Basically, anything goes wrong, and Mercy goes catatonic. She also has a pathological need to be correct (as evidenced by this super weird scene where she uses magic to basically project what her boyfriend thinks is a private conversation to everyone else in their high school so she can show her sister that she’s totally wrong, but, of course, it blows up in her face), and whenever possible, likes to blame her problems on her sister (it was so, so obvious her interpretation of an olde passage was likely incorrect).

So neither of these characters is likable. And they’re presumably going to change and grow throughout the series and blah, blah, blah, but at least for this book, I was kind of just like, I don’t really care about you…? They didn’t feel like real teenagers, and they were awful, so I personally felt no reason to root for them or care about their wellbeing.

And before y’all respond, “That was totally me in high school!” or “what the fuck, IG, have you even met a teenager before?” let me give an example of why they don’t feel like real characters. For teenagers with problems and potential narcissism complexes, these chicks responses to the idea of drugs and sex and, you know, fun stuff that teenagers with problems (aka, all teenagers) often get themselves into more problems with until they develop other interests, is like an after-school special. This interpretation could be me as an adult looking at teenage characters, but personally, I don’t see any reason why kids need to feel like they are a bad person if they are curious about what recreational drugs are like, and also no kid needs to feel guilty about liking the little death. Although I was traumatized as a 10-year-old reading SVH, where Regina dies because she does a bump of cocaine, smoking a joint really isn’t the end of the world (or doing a bump of cocaine). Just, like anything, don’t overdo it, or you can, like, ruin your nose and have trouble finding a job and shit. In a similar way, sexual activity in and of itself isn’t bad. Consent in all activity is very, very important. As long as both parties were consenting, there isn’t an illegal age difference, and both parties are being smart (condoms, guys, keeps you covered in more way than one), you have no reason to feel ashamed of anything you have done. And I guess after-school special teens aren’t necessarily non-existent, but it would have been nice to see some open-minded teen protagonists who aren’t jerks about anything non-traditional that they themselves aren’t personally experiencing (i.e., they’re witches, and one is a lesbian in a small town, and as such, it would be cool if they showed empathy towards other people who don’t fit into the mythical small-town box).

Then, there’s the weird description of their mother. The twins literally hold hands and stare at their mother and think about how hot she is, in one scene. I found myself thinking about the fact that this book was written by a mother/daughter duo as I read the scene, and finding the whole thing very unrelatable. Even if your mother is good-looking, I just find it weird that as a teenager, you think about how beautiful her ample, unrestrained bosom is, and the staring twin thing doesn’t translate to “Aw…” in my mind. More “Ah!!!” horror-feels.

To me, I think the ideas and characters in this series would maybe have worked better as a single, epic book. This book kind of felt like a Halloween-sized piece of Laffy Taffy that was being stretched and forced into an unnaturally larger size and then proffered as an alternative for dinner. The idea behind the debut novel in a series is to leave you hungry for more, but in this case, the candy had been stretched too thin, so that it was wasn’t tasty enough to leave me craving more Sisters of Salem, but instead, a meatier book with more substance. The plot itself was kind of interesting – alluding to five distinct sets of mythology – but also didn’t exactly make sense. Why did a monster only escape from one of the five gates, when all of them were losing strength? Presumably, we will encounter a different monster/mythology with each book in the series. But this book would have been stronger, and there would have been a greater sense of urgency, if there had been more enemy for the girls to conquer in this debut. I would have much rather had a larger book, jam-packed with plot, than the book we have, which is trying to hook the reader but didn’t quite work for me.

Oh, Hamlet…

In summation: does this novel cast a spell on all who read it? I mean, obviously, it didn’t on me. But if you are a series reader, if you don’t need to like the characters, and if you’re cool with historical inaccuracy and/or lack of transparency, it may cast one on you.

So Apparently I Like Shakespeare

I’ve been in the mood for Shakespeare re-tellings lately. Got my hands on the ARCs of Mona Awad’s All’s Well that Ends Well influenced novel All’s Well, and Samantha Cohoe’s Bright Ruined Things, which is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both of these books are well written, and I would highly recommend.

Mona Awad, author of Bunny, responder to my tweet, and all-around amazing writer, has proven her mettle once more with an astounding magical realism novel that will make you feel all the feelings on the spectrum of feelings if you have a soul featuring has-been actress, current perpetually unwell acting director at a small university Miranda Fitch.

Miranda Fitch was a beautiful actress giving generally well-received performances in the Shakespeare oeuvre, in the midst of the dramatic bloody hands scene in Macbeth when she accidentally fell off of the stage and damaged her back. Since that moment, her life has been a torment. She is in terrible, constant, debilitating pain, with few to no allies. The doctors she goes to cannot find a source for the pain, the physical therapists make it worse, and some of the people in her life seem to think she is making it up for attention or that she might feel better if she’d just adopt a more chipper attitude or that she has maybe crossed the line between sanity and madness. The fact that Miranda pops pills the way my toddler eats candy, and is so focused on her internal self that she sometimes misses people and events until she is no longer able to avoid them makes the reader unclear about exactly what is happening.

Miranda is pitiable – there is no other way to describe her. She is pitiable, and it is difficult to spend time with her, in her unending and unendurable existence of pain and unhappiness. One night, however, she happens upon three unusual men in a bar, and a web of magic begins to furl itself around Miranda and those around her. As Miranda’s life changes, she realizes that she is a caught in a web bigger than illness, bigger than love, and that lives and souls are at stake. Miranda is forced to confront herself, and to determine what is most important to her and how she wants to live her life… or what’s left of it.

#webofmagic

This book took longer for me to become invested in than Bunny. It is, frankly, just very difficult to spend that much time reading about, and thereby empathizing with, someone else’s pain. Particularly when you’re not exactly certain if the pain is real, or if there is mental illness causing Miranda to feel a phantom of something that no longer exists. Awad’s writing, however, is always spectacular, her skillful craft thrumming through each line. And once Miranda does begin to think about other things, the pace of the novel picks up at a manic pace that will leave you marveling at the author’s skill and desperate to know what happens next.

Slated for release August 3, 2021. I highly recommend that you pre-order from an indie bookstore so you can get your hands on a copy ASAP.

4.5 Stars

Samantha Cohoe, from my cursory search of her website, seems to write YA novels. Her debut novel was A Golden Fury; I have not read it, but it has a Goodreads rating of 3.67, and is about a girl who is a talented alchemist trying to create the philosopher’s stone, which has caused her mother to go insane. Bright Ruined Things, on the other hand, is a story that primarily takes place on an island filled with magical beings whom the paternal figure (whom we will call “Poppa Prosper” in this blog post, although most of the characters in the novel call him grandfather because they are unimaginative and don’t like alliteration) has bound to get them to create a fuel called aether that has replaced gasoline.

The Prospers are a powerful and wealthy family, but our story is told by May, the orphan girl the family adopted when her father begged Poppa Prosper to take care of her from his (father’s) deathbed. May has never left the island, and she doesn’t want to – it is her home, and she is trying to stay quiet about the fact that she’s 18 and figure out a way to learn magic so that she can be useful to the family and Poppa Prosper will keep her around.

As the story opens, the Prosper family who live off the island all return for First Night, an annual celebration of the first time that Poppa Prosper tamed the spirits on the island. If you keep wanting to read Bright Ruined Things as Bright Young Things, you are not alone – I keep mis-typing the title, and I think this may have been done on purpose, given that the time period during which this novel is set and this fabulous party is slated to occur is the 1920s. The environment is wealthy, glamorous, on the cusp of ripe and spoiling. Something is happening to the spirits that no one has ever encountered before, and as May investigates, she is forced to confront the reality of her beloved island and the source of the Prospers’ wealth, and learns about herself and what she is willing to do for the love and power she has desired for her entire life.

Slated for release October 26, 2021, I also recommend this book, particularly if you are a fan of YA fantasy.