Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles is a YA attempt at The Handmaid’s Tale… with magic.
The series is set in an oppressive version of 1890s New England, where society is run by the Brotherhood, a group of religious extremists who insist that all women either marry at 18 or join their nun equivalent, the Sisterhood. Once, New England was run by witches, but they were almost all killed in a religious uprising, and now any woman suspected of “impropriety,” or accused of witchcraft, is sent to work on a prison ship, locked up in the infamous Harwood Asylum, or simply disappears without a trace.
Cate Cahill and her two younger sisters are all witches. They practice magic in secret, but as their mother died when they were young, they know very little about their powers or magic’s past. Cate has sworn to protect her younger sisters from the Brotherhood, but her eighteenth birthday approaches, when she must either find someone to propose to her, or be married off at the Brotherhood’s behest — and they don’t like quiet, strange girls like Cate at all.
Religious oppression runs deep in this book, and it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times, but, as I said, this is very much a YA version of that theme, both in the sense that it has romance that’s central to the story, and in the sense that it has hope. Things get pretty grim, but they’re never hopelessly grim, in part because magic is real, the girls do have power, and we always get the sense that they’ll be able to do something about their oppression in the end. It’s that YA dystopian “the world sucks, but teenagers might be able to fix it” thing, and it helps the book feel far more fun than it otherwise could have been.
The initial plot set-up is very marriage-plot-esque — Cate must declare her intention to marry in a few months time, or her husband will be chosen for her. And this does play a significant role in the story. But this plotline is quickly overtaken by Cate’s discovery that her mother didn’t tell her everything about her magic, and that protecting her sisters may not be as simple as she once hoped.
At its heart, The Cahill Witch Chronicles is about the relationship between these three sisters. Although it has a couple of love interests and a dead-mother trope, it’s full of vibrant female characters and their many complicated relationships with one another. It’s also a very diverse book, embracing the idea that if this alternate history can have actual witches, it can definitely have people who aren’t white. So the richest and most influential people in the town are the Ishida family, with Brother Ishida as a major antagonist and his daughter Sachi playing an important role in Cate’s story. This basic principle of “if you can have magic, you can have diversity” is found throughout all three books, and it’s a refreshing change.
Also, lesbian witches!
This is a great book series for fans of Libba Bray, Robin LeFevers, or any “Victorian magic!” style fiction. I devoured all three books in about two days, and I can’t wait to see what this author writes next.