Reviews, Young Adult

These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

Rating: 4 out of 5.

That’s what they say. All things considered. They tell me it’s a miracle I didn’t suffer tremendous burns. That I’m lucky. Blessed even.

I need a new T-shirt: someone tried to kill me, and all I got was this stupid concussion. But the real injuries won’t show up on their scans. I think they know that.

*There may be spoilers in the content warning section above the summary. Tread lightly!*

Book One of the “These Witches Don’t Burn” series.
Published: May 2019
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Representation: LGBTQIA2S+ (wlw & lesbian, mlm, bisexual, and trans characters)
Content Warning: being arrested/handcuffed; being trapped in a burning building; smoke inhalation; near death experience; near death of a friend; mention of an ex-boyfriend who stalked a character after breakup; mutilated animal corpse; blood; arson; mentions of the Salem Witch Trials; fetishization of a kiss between women by a straight man (including taking video and leering); suggestion of a magically coerced kiss (unintentional, and may not have been coerced); severe car crash (car being pushed into a concrete barrier, car falling into water and sinking); severe injuries resulting from car crash; broken bones; head trauma; family member in a coma; death of a family member; nearly burning alive; gun violence; fear of being outed.

Summary

Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

— summary from Goodreads

Review

We’re going to be honest with you – while this book was something we were both intending to read, what made us read it sooner than later was the fact that one of our favourite voice actors, Kristen DiMercurio, did the narration for the audiobook. For those of you who aren’t as immersed in fiction podcasts or audio dramas as we are, we first came across Kristen from her work on the podcast ars PARADOXICA, which is the story of a hard-headed and brilliant scientist named Sally Grissom who accidentally invents time travelling and gets stuck in the past. If you’re inclined towards podcasts, we definitely recommend it – it’s a fun but sometimes devastating story with a broad cast of characters who fill a definite gray area. And there are a bunch of queer characters! Give it a try!

But enough with our podcast rambling – let’s get back to our book rambling. Kristen did such a phenomenal job with ars PARADOXICA, we both knew we had to give this audiobook a try – which was a first for both of us. And she did not disappoint! Narration can make or break an audiobook, and Kristen definitely brought her A-game. The story in itself isn’t one to scoff at – although, looking back at it, it did seem to be a lot longer than it actually was due to the fact that so dang much happened within those pages (Audio clips? Minutes? How do you quantify the moments in an audiobook?)

For one, we’ve heard a lot of folks criticize the book for false marketing. They purport that the cover of the book makes it seem a lot more light-hearted than it is. And while we can see where those folks are coming from – we went into this novel blind and were taken off guard when it ended up being a lot darker and more intense than we thought it was going to be – we disagree with the “false marketing” accusation. Yes, the cover doesn’t suggest that the book will be particularly dark, but it also doesn’t feel overly light-hearted either. It has a fairly neutral vibe, with its tarot card portraits of the central characters and generally witchy aesthetic, and looks a lot like YA novel covers tend to look. And if you were to take a moment to read the summary, the book is pretty honest about its contents. If the mention of “blood rituals,” “blood magic,” and “attacks” don’t immediately tip you off, then you’re in for a bumpy ride. Because this book, and its author, don’t hold anything back – and we’re sure you can see that with our fairly long content warning section above. We will be clear, though – this book seems to be targeted more towards mature audiences, including mature teenagers (regardless of age), as opposed to younger folks. You can refer to our (spoiler-filled) content warning if you want more details on why.

These Witches Don’t Burn is a well-balanced mix of teenage angst, drama, hardship, and romance along with the darker side of being a vulnerable young witch living in Salem during what seems to be persistent attacks against their coven. The protagonist, Hannah, is still reeling from her recent breakup, and throughout the book, she goes through an honest and endearing journey of feeling pain and sadness, to moving on and realizing that she deserves better than what she got. That in itself is an incredible message for the book to be giving to young readers, because that’s often the thing that folks struggle with the most: caring about someone and choosing to continue a relationship with them even if they’re not good for you. That mixed with the fact that Hannah is a lesbian shows the author’s care towards representation and portraying self-realization and love to YA audiences. We have to applaud her for that! A lot of YA books tend to treat the main conflict as a side project to the romance, which leads to the characters making odd decisions considering the life-threatening circumstances they’re in, but this novel does a good job in balancing both aspects of the story in a realistic way that is still reflective of how a teenager actually may think and feel. It’s a well-blended, action-packed mystery tied in with a romance component that was done pretty well and in a way that honours its readers as opposed to talking down to them. There is also a ton of representation, from lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters as well as a trans character. And the friendships/relationships that Hannah holds are so meaningful in that they aren’t all inherently romantic or sexual as is sometimes the case with fantasy YA novels. Hannah is well-supported by her friends and family, which is a lovely thing to see when there is otherwise so much conflict.

On top of all that, the uncomplicated magic system leads the reader to be easily immersed into the lore of the book’s world. It’s interesting and perfectly witchy, including a fitting origin story that settles you into the atmosphere of the book quite comfortably. When picking up this one, prepare yourself for the ups-and-downs, including some very real danger and trauma, intermingled with mischievous teenagers, sweet friendships, and some good ‘ol cushy love.

P.S. Author Isabel Sterling’s dedication to queer representation isn’t a coincidence – she’s an own-voices write and LGBTQIA2S+ activist. Check out her website here.

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