Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: August 31st, 2021
The Last Magician meets The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy in this thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy following a young woman who discovers she has magical powers and is thrust into a battle between witches and wizards.
In 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet—her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.
Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.
Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined? (Goodreads)
The Witch Haven is the first book in a planned duology, and what a grand debut it is. If you’re thinking this is another tale relying on the same old ubiquitous magical boarding school trope, let me disabuse you that notion quickly. While Haxahaven is a school of sorts for female and non-binary witches of all ages, including adults, it’s less about teaching girls and women to embrace their power, and more about hiding and controlling it to fit in with the misogynistic New York of 1911.
Frances is a headstrong seventeen-year-old who suddenly comes into her power when the owner of the shop she works in attempts to sexually assault her. After killing him by accident she thinks she’s landed in a sanctuary when she’s brought to Haxahaven, but while she and her new friends and classmates are being bored to their wits ends with lessons teaching them how to use magic for ordinary household chores, the school and its headmistress are hiding dark and dangerous secrets. In addition, Frances is desperate to discover who murdered her brother William and why, and although she’s a highly intelligent young woman, her emotions tend to get the better of her and she makes some rather foolish decisions that not only put her life in danger, but others as well. Despite this, I wound up liking and connecting with her, even when a few of her actions had me groaning. The other integral characters are interesting and each have unique qualities which add to the story. I especially liked Lena, who as a Native American child was forcibly separated from her family and put in a government-run school. Her plight is timely in light of the recent news stories regarding boarding schools for indigenous children in Canada, which has caused the U.S. to again re-examine its own shameful past. There is a love triangle but if you’re like me and can’t stand this particular plot device, rest assured that there’s not a lot of time spent on it.
The setting is very atmospheric and 1911 New York City is vividly brought to life in all its dark grittiness through Smith’s detailing of the rampant misogyny, abhorrent child labor, sweatshops and suffragette movement. Even the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is brought up.
There are several twists, and while I correctly guessed a couple, the answer to the central mystery: who killed William and what was their motive, eluded me until shortly before the reveal. The ending is quite shocking and sets the stage perfectly for the next book.
The Witch Haven truly is a fascinating read, and if you choose to try it I believe you’ll find it a challenge to put down once you’ve begun reading. If you enjoy historical fantasies with flawed yet strong female characters, and like authors such as Libba Bray, I enthusiastically encourage you to pick this up.