The Age of Witches
The Age of Witches is out today, April 7th, 2020. I received an eARC from the publisher, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
My review contains spoilers regarding the relationships of some of the main characters.
Content Warning: Blood, sexual assault
In Gilded Age New York, a centuries-long clash between two magical families ignites when a young witch must choose between love and loyalty, power and ambition, in this magical novel by Louisa Morgan.
In 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged as a witch. Two hundred years later, her legacy lives on in the scions of two very different lines: one dedicated to using their powers to heal and help women in need; the other, determined to grasp power for themselves by whatever means necessary.
This clash will play out in the fate of Annis, a young woman in Gilded Age New York who finds herself a pawn in the family struggle for supremacy. She’ll need to claim her own power to save herself-and resist succumbing to the darkness that threatens to overcome them all.
In short, this novel is a gem. I will of course talk about why it is so in a moment, but The Age of Witches has all of the elements I expected and more; combined with Louisa Morgan’s writing style, this is the perfect novel to spend a day or weekend with.
The novel starts with a flashback to 1692, and Louisa Morgan puts us into the mind of Bridget Bishop, who has been sentenced to hang for accusations of witchcraft. She considers her actions and the reasons why she is in her position – fearful, scorned men and the dangerous immaturity of her accusers. She also reflects on her two daughters, Mary and Christian, and how they were now her only hope to carry on her legacy of power – and we learn a little later what “power” means to each of the sisters and their descendants.
Flashing forward to 1890, we are introduced to Harriet, a descendant from Mary’s line. Her antagonist, Frances, is a cousin and a descendant from Christian. These lines symbolize good and evil, as Mary’s line inherited more herbalist and artistic power, while Christian’s descendants added a darker magic to their repertoire, including philters and manikins to control and manipulate minds and spirits.
Annis Allington is the third main character, and is the step-daughter of Frances. While we are aware of Harriet’s power and through Harriet, Annis’ potential as an heir of Mary’s, Frances’ abilities are not as significantly at the forefront – at least at the beginning of the book. Her primary focus is on climbing the social ladder, and it is not until we learn that she plans on using Annis as a pawn to get to the highest rung that we are introduced to her dark magic abilities. Harriet, thankfully, knows Frances’ power and her intentions with Annis nearly from the start, and thankfully is there to watch over the young girl.
Although Annis, her father, Frances, and Harriet live in New York, it is not until they make an ocean voyage to England that the primary action begins. Frances tries to force Annis to marry a Lord (using a four day stay at the Lord’s home and dark magic to do so), and Harriet – who happened to make the same journey to the same village – does what she can to counter all of Frances’ magic, including employing Annis’ help.
Amidst this core plot is a smattering of side characters who play equally important roles, and Annis’ love for horses – which includes wanting to be a breeder when she turns eighteen (she is seventeen at the beginning of the novel). For plot-first readers or readers who need a quickly paced story that is heavy with plot, The Age of Witches might not satisfy you. If you prefer your stories to be character driven, however, you will become a fast fan of Louisa Morgan if you are not already.
To expand on this: the plot is simple, and the pacing is slow. But Louisa Morgan manages to stay on the satisfying side of the line between satisfying and dull. I would say to have patience, but again, if you love character driven novels, thoughts about being patient won’t cross your mind.
While many topics – like women’s rights, animal rights, social standings, grief, and aristocratic expectations – are covered in this novel, they all fall under one theme: power. Each character has a struggle with power, although the women especially. Not just a power struggle with societal and male expectations, however. Our three main characters also struggle with power over their hearts, abilities, and even each other. As the battle between good and evil mounts, it becomes clear (through interpretation and through an admission by Harriet) that the dichotomy between the two are not so cut and dry.
The language and vocabulary Louisa Morgan used in her writing is artful, appropriate, and informing. There were a dozen or so words I didn’t know before reading this book, but the author’s ability to incorporate them into sentences that hinted at their definitions – in other words, it’s relatively easy to guess their meaning if you don’t have a dictionary on hand – is the sign of a writer who stays true to their own style while considering the accessibility of their readers.
Also incorporated into the plot are references to historical events and places. Alluding not just to the Witch Trials in America, but the Wars of Roses in England, and Blackwell’s Island in New York. Making these details relatively important throughout the story kept this fantasy novel grounded in reality – which, for this reader, is appreciated in stories about witches. It’s charming to think about the history of infamous geographic locations alongside the magical or supernatural possibilities, and Louisa Morgan balanced that charm perfectly.
It would be remiss not to mention the love story intertwined with all the other details. The Lord (James) to whom Frances wants to marry Annis is stuck up, rude, and expects Annis to fall in line with aristocratic obligations of women. He is shocked that Annis knows about sex and business – arguably more than he does – and that she is so forward in discussions and banter surrounding those and other topics. It’s pretty clear that they will end up together, even after Frances’ dark magic is successfully countered, and the anticipation of how Louisa Morgan was going to carry it out was tense. Was she going to be yet another author who creates a female character who casts out her convictions because of a marriage proposal? Or was she going to turn her female character into an unhappy figure because she could not make room in her steadfast heart for love? Neither, fortunately. But their engagement scene is still rife with unease. When Annis explains she will need to be in New York for part of the year to study herbs with Harriet, James tries once again to force her into obligatory and aristocratic female duties, after which she nearly declines his proposal. He sort of apologizes and admits his fault, and Annis ultimately says yes. While it is clear that he has changed for the better between first meeting him and this proposal, it is also frustrating to see him fall back into sexist tradition. Although, knowing Annis, it’s very clear she will stand up to any future infraction he makes until he no longer makes them, and for me, that is gratifying enough.
Pick up this book if you are interested in a creative take on Victorian witches, and/or if you need a consuming escape from modern day. Louisa Morgan delivers in The Age of Witches, and I look forward to reading her other books.