THE WITCH HAVEN, by Sasha Peyton Smith, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Aug. 31, 2021, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
A young woman discovers she has magical powers in Sasha Peyton Smith’s historical YA fantasy, The Witch Haven.
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? —Synopsis provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
On its face, The Witch Haven is a book about witches. But the much deeper theme of female oppression is what sticks with you. Frances and her classmates are expected to become “good little women/wives.” Their magic should never be more than a help for the normal tasks expected of them. They should never be too powerful, too strong.
But that’s not the life Frances or the other girls want. As they begin to delve deeper, the girls realize they have the power to change a great many things.
The Witch Haven has an atmospheric almost gothic feel to it. Author Sasha Peyton Smith does a great job setting the overall tone and her pacing helps amplify the overall impression.
Frances is a strong, but flawed, protagonist. There were a few times when I questioned her choices, but otherwise felt she carried the story well. Supporting characters are for the most part well-fleshed-out, adding dimension and interest.
The Witch Haven is a dark read. And there are some elements that could be triggering (attempted sexual assault, blood, murder, mutilation of corpses, alluded to child abuse, mental health issues). There are also a few plot holes and cliché’s that don’t need to be there. Despite the above issues, Smith’s writing resonates, making for a fast and engaging read.