The 15th-century polemic Malleus Maleficarum, credited to Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, advocated brutal methods for the prosecution of witchcraft and also codified the Western concept of a witch—a bitter old woman who lives in isolation, casts incantations and curses, and cavorts with the devil. The image has persisted for centuries, whether in European fairy tales or 20th-century Disney movies.
This season, novelists are inviting readers into a new coven—one whose members may be seen as symbols of feminist resistance. “It’s not just that witches are experiencing a resurgence in interest,” says Adrienne Procaccini, senior editor at 47North. “What’s particularly intriguing is that we’re reimaging the concept of what a witch is.”
PW spoke with editors about forthcoming novels that foreground what was always subversive, even radical, within the trope.
Rewriting the spellbook
“Readers are drawn to characters who push back against what society expects for them,” says Nivia Evans, editor at Orbit. “And no character does that better than a witch.” In October, the Orbit imprint Redhook will publish Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches, set in an alternate 19th-century America where magic is real. The novel reimagines historical events including the Salem witch trials and the suffragist movement. By treating magic as a learnable skill, Evans says, Harrow challenges “the idea of a chosen one and destiny,” suggesting that “magic, much like knowledge or success, is a matter of access.” (See “Reclaiming the Subversive” for a q&a with Harrow.)
If that sounds overtly political, that’s because it is, and it’s of a piece with other witchy fantasies that use counterfactual history to illuminate injustice and inequity. In The Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. Malerich (Tor.com, Nov.), magic proves instrumental in the early days of the organized labor movement, when a pair of textile mill workers “convince the other girls to bind themselves together so that none of them can break their strike until their demands are met,” according to PW’s review, which also noted, “Historical fantasy fans won’t want to miss this.” Carl Engle-Laird, editor at Tor.com, says the book’s “biggest subversion of our expectations of witches is that victory is achieved through sharing the power of witchcraft.” When it comes to magical fantasy, he adds, “witchcraft is the counterculture. It’s the power that doesn’t mix and mingle with society’s structures of dominance.”
In a similarly class-conscious vein, the scrappy sorceress at the center of Charlie N. Holmberger’s duology-launching Spellbreaker (47 North, Nov.) uses her magic against aristocrats in an alternate Victorian London in order to help the less fortunate. The heroine of D.J. Butler’s Serpent Daughter (Baen, Nov.) is a spell-casting tobacco farmer turned monarch working to unite her people and defeat a tyrant; it continues Butler’s Witchy War series, which draws on Appalachian folklore and unfolds in an alternate early America. The setting of World Fantasy Award–winner C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain (Erewhon, Oct.), meanwhile, recalls Regency England, albeit one in which women who marry lose their access to magic. The author “delivers sharp social commentary,” PW’s starred review said, while balancing “propulsive pacing, a rich multicultural world, and a vivid and subversive cast of characters.”
Rather than depicting the witch as manipulating the supernatural for nefarious purposes, these books show her resisting an unfair system. “We’re living in a time of fierce activism,” Orbit’s Evans says. “Witches represent the powerless and the marginalized finding the power to fight back against what is oppressing them.”
A new syllabus
Other witchy titles examine the idea of oppression where it’s often felt most keenly, if hyperbolically: at school.
With A Deadly Education (Del Rey, Oct.), Naomi Novik launches a trilogy set at the Scholomance, a school of the dark arts based in Romanian folklore. In what PW’s starred review called “a refreshingly dark, adult spin on the magical boarding school setting,” a powerful sorceress-in-training joins up with classmates to battle the deadly demonic creatures that besiege the school as part of the curriculum.
“The witchy trope, for me, has always been about the outsiders achieving and using power,” says Anne Groell, executive editor at Del Rey. “Witches are the outsiders—in history as in fantasy—so it’s not surprising that this type of story holds enormous resonance.”
In Tracy Deonn’s YA fantasy debut, the series launch Legendborn (McElderry, Sept.; ages 14 and up), the main character, a Black teenager enrolled in a program for gifted high school students at UNC–Chapel Hill, is drawn into a historically white and racist secret society whose members are magic-wielding, demon-fighting descendants of Arthurian knights. “Bree struggles as the Order’s sole Black member and page, but outside Black female practitioners offer help via a different means of magic,” PW’s review said. “Deonn adeptly employs the haunting history of the American South (‘the low buzzing sound of exclusion’) to explore themes of ancestral pain, grief, and love.”
Another YA fantasy series launch, The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige (HMH, Nov.; ages 14 and up), also takes the witch out of her traditional forest cabin and places her in an incongruous, modern environment—in this case, fictional Westerly College in Savannah, Ga. The fact that the exclusive Kappa Rho Nu sorority is actually a coven is both a reclamation and a metaphorical preemptive strike against those who’d refer to any ambitious woman as a witch.
There are as many concepts of women conjurers as there are cultures around the globe. Andrea Hairston’s Master of Poisons (Tor.com, Sept.), for instance, “invit[es] readers into a well-developed, non-Western fantasy world,” PW’s starred review said, of garden sprites, spirits, and sorcery. Hairston draws on African folktales and postcolonial literature, deploying the West African figure of the griot—a traditional storyteller sometimes thought to have connections to the spiritual world—in a story in which an empire is threatened by a poisonous desert and a young griot-in-training is coming into her power.
Girls Against God (Verso, Oct.), the second novel by Norwegian musician Jenny Val, taps into the European avant-garde, philosophy, female rage, and supernatural horror in its depiction of a contemporary coven in Oslo. The meditations on “art, sexuality, religion, and feminist theory” are not “for the faint of heart,” PW’s starred review said, “but those who like it dark will find this right up their alley.”
47North’s Procaccini, for one, says the readership is there. “Dark fantasy is horror’s feminine side, as horror has historically been a male-dominated genre. Witches are a particular trope in dark fantasy that tends to speak specifically to women’s empowerment.”
And as women continue to assert themselves in this political and cultural moment, Tor.com’s Engle-Laird says, “witchcraft—earthy, rebellious, feminine, and irrepressible—can’t help but appeal.”
Ed Simon is a staff writer for the Millions.
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