The Year of the Witching is a dark fantasy and horror novel by Alexis Henderson.
The story is set in a secluded village called Bethel. The society is polygamous, and people’s lives are tightly controlled by religious leaders. Superstition is one of the tools of domination.
Immanuelle, the protagonist of the story, is biracial, born of a white mother and black father. She grows up isolated and an outcast, with her grandmother. Responding to the call of the spirits, she discovers that she has a special connection to them. This takes her on a journey to learn about her family history and build her identity.
My Verdict on The Year of the Witching
I found this book to be a very interesting read. The world-building is detailed so that I could feel the sense of eeriness and encroaching darkness. Anderson does a convincing job of describing the dark woods and spirits. Similarly, the characters are well-developed and complex.
The book explores themes of identity, oppression, power dynamics, patriarchy, and religious fanaticism. Gender is also a powerful element, as Immanuelle is a young woman in a world where women are meant to submit to men and are seen to represent darkness. She takes on the establishment, challenging the world order.
I say that I don’t enjoy horror, and that’s why I’ve never read a Stephen King book. Yet, I found The Year of the Witching to be a compelling read. The events that take place are believable within the make-believe world of Bethel. I highly recommend this read.
A baby is delivered into her grandmother’s hands. Immanuelle, this is the name that her grandmother receives for her. Miriam, the mother, laughs about the curse associated with the baby as she dies.
Immanuelle is raised by the Moores, her grandmother, and the other wives. Bethel is a community where men have multiple wives. The town revolves around the church, which is run by The Prophet. The Moores were once a rich family, with the grandfather, Abram, being an apostle of the church. All of that changed with Mariam’s choice.
Light and Darkness
The Father is light and The Mother is Darkness. While The Father has dominion over Bethel, The Mother does over the Darkwood. The people of Bethel chase the light through the good pleasure and grace of The Father. This means following the edicts of the church and avoiding sin. Sin is warded off with pain and penance.
The Darkwood frames Bethel and is a place of fear for the community. Immanuelle is warned never to enter The Darkwood. It was part of the demise of her mother.
Mariam was betrothed to the prophet but chose sin instead. She met a man from the Outskirts, and they fell in love. She got pregnant and spent time living in the Darkwood. The fact that her boyfriend, Daniel Ward’s family, was known to have witchcraft in their bloodline did not help. When we meet Mariam at the beginning of the story, she has come to Martha, her mother, to give birth to Immanuelle.
After Daniel was burned as a form of purging for his sins, Mariam was forgiven by the prophet since they were betrothed, but then she tried to slit his throat with his holy dagger. He foiled her attack and she fled to the Darkwood. She returned months later to give birth to her baby. While she gave birth, her father had a stroke that almost killed him. When Mariam died, he lost his Gift, but he remained alive and crippled.
Immanuelle is a shepherdess. She takes care of the sheep for her family with occasional help from a farmer, Josiah. Immanuelle only has one friend, Leah. At their final Sabbath fellowship by the river, as girls, Leah tells her that she will marry the Prophet. During that same gathering, Judith, one of the Prophet’s wives, asks Immanuelle if she has a Gift. In response, Immanuelle jokes about dancing with witches, and that catches Ezra’s attention. He finds her response amusing. Ezra is the heir of the prophet, and this special status makes him the youngest of the apostles.
Immanuelle’s only friend, Leah, gets betrothed and married to The Prophet. Immanuelle is uncomfortable with the way The Prophet’s eyes follow her. She feels and sees him watching her, and it feels like a violation.
Although Immanuelle is nearly seventeen years old, she has not bled. But then, one day, going home from the market with a ram that she’d failed to sell, he is spooked by the weather and bolts into The Darkwood. She tries to find him but instead finds his severed head and comes across The Lovers, Jael, and Mercy, witches who served the Dark Mother and had been burned (purged) in the Holy War. One of them gives her a journal from her mother.
It is forbidden to read anything except books sanctioned by the church, and many women cannot read. Abram made sure that Immanuelle could read, and she gets to know Mariam through the journal. She finds an image of her father and details about the love between him and Mariam. However, as the journal went on, the writing was more frantic and difficult to read. It was disjointed and scary. And on the last few pages, there were 4 words over and over again: Blood, Blight, Darkness, Slaughter.
It was some time before Immanuelle was awakened and called back to the forest. This time, she was called to walk into a pond, where she met Delilah, the Witch of the Water, who led her into a pond. She saw visions of her mother and the dead in the pond before coming back to the surface. That’s when she saw the bestial form of Lilith, the Witch Queen daughter of the Dark Mother. Then Immanuelle realized that she had had her first bleed.
The next day, all the rivers and water in Bethel turned to blood. The Prophet said that it had to be a curse and asked that whoever caused it should repent. Immanuelle worried that she was the cause. She hadn’t intended to do anything, but maybe she’d stirred up a curse by interacting with the witches. She decided that she needed to find a way to stop the curse.
As the plague went on, the residents of Bethel were able to collect water from rain and use the stored resources of The Prophet. After several days without rain, they needed to ration water and animals started dying. People were afraid what would happen next; their prayers were not working, and the apostles had found no solution.
Immanuelle knew of Ezra’s secret. He and Judith, one of the brides of the Prophet, had been together. She saw an argument between him and Judith, where Judith broke the chain holding his holy dagger and kissed him. After that, she ran into him at a bookshop, where he came to her aid. His own reading and speaking style were blasphemous. When Immanuelle needed help, she knew he was the one she could go to.
Immanuelle suggested that Ezra repay her by keeping his secret by sneaking her into The Haven’s library, the Prophet’s Library. He finally agreed.
Immanuelle and Ezra spend hours looking through reference books in the library. These books are changed to the shelves due to the information they contain. Finally, they find one on witchcraft, The Dark Mother, and the other witches. Immanuelle learns that it’s possible to wield a curse by making an offering in a lake at the center of the Darkwood called The Mother’s Belly, a practice called “feeding of the Mother”.
As The Prophet walks into the library, Immanuelle has to hide. Ezra told her how to get out unseen, but she stayed near and heard The Prophet ask for the census of the women in Bethel. She also heard his accusations of improper conduct between Judith and Ezra. Minutes later, Immanuelle met Judith in the hallway. As they stood talking, Judith being superior and unkind to her as usual, one of the apostles came to get Judith for The Prophet.
Immanuelle comes up with a plan. Ezra insists on going with her. He knows the lake she wants to find because he used to play in the Darkwood as a child. She finally relents that he can come along.
Ezra leads Immanuelle right to The Lake. She gives him to hold one end of a rope while she ties the other around her body. Then she wades into the water to undo the curse. While Immanuelle is in the water, she is dragged down and sees many women who were killed by the first prophet and witch killer, David Ford She realizes that many of them were innocents and not witches as he charged.
When Immanuelle comes to, she is surprised to see that it is almost twilight. The rope is around her waist still, but it is slack. When she finds Ezra, he is passed out and captured by thorns and tree roots. She has to use Abram’s dagger, which she brought with her, to hack him out. He starts to fight and choke her, but then snaps back into himself in time. Then his body starts to contort, and she realizes that he is having his first vision. Prophets have the gift of sight, while apostles have various other gifts. By receiving his first vision, Ezra confirms his inheritance of the Prophethood
Over a week later, Immanuelle sees Ezra at a celebration of his first Vision. Ezra did not give away what happened in the Darkwood and she is esteemed for having come to his aid. Ezra is fully recuperated, although he seems to be drinking a bit too much alcohol. At the celebration, Leah tells Immanuelle that she is pregnant. She has not been married that long, and Immanuelle finds out that The Prophet has been using her since she was only 13 and at the Haven for penance. She became pregnant before their betrothal and marriage. This increases Immanuelle’s distaste for the Prophet and her distrust of him. She realizes that he is a flawed, sinful man, even though he metes out punishment to all the other sinners.
When she follows Ezra into this room for a moment to talk alone, he shows her census paper. It has the mark of witchcraft, inherited through her father’s bloodline. He feeds it to the fire, and he swears to help her if she needs anything. She says that she won’t.
The Blood curse ends and Immanuelle hopes that she has stopped the plagues. Then she is awakened by a loud noise and finds both her sisters Honor and Glory sleepwalking. What’s worse is that Honor is trying to bash her head against the door. The second curse has begun and families all over Bethel are afflicted. Women and girls ran naked or almost naked into the Darkwood, never to be seen again. Some try to harm themselves as Honor did and have to be tied to their beds. Others fall into a comma, as is the case with Glory.
Immanuelle realizes that she did not end the curses. She has a nightmare about the slaughter, seeing her family dead around her, and realizes she has to do what she can to stop it. Her first step is to learn more about her family.
Immanuelle needs a whole day to travel to the Outskirts and try to find her paternal family. Over the years, the people of the Outskirts, immigrants to the area, and people with dark skin and different features, have accepted the local religious practices.
“… the angels always looked like Leah: golden-haired and blue-eyed, dressed fine in silks and satins, with full cheeks and skin as pale as river pearls.”
“As for the girls like Immanuelle — the ones from the Outskirts, with dark skin and raven-black curls, cheekbones as keen as cut stone — well the Scriptures never mentioned them at all.”
The people on the Outskirts have their own cathedral, smaller in scale than that of Bethel. When she gets there, she goes to the cathedral and interrupts the priest in the middle of a sacrifice of chickens. He interrupts his work to speak to her privately. In the apse, she realizes that the map there matches the one in The Haven’s library, but this one shows the Darkwood as a female shape. She learns that her grandmother, Vera, moved to Ishmael right after her son was killed. She asks the priest to see the old homestead, and he instructs the girl who was tending the burning offering to take her.
The old homestead has been burned, but the foundation blocks still stand. As Immanuelle explores them, she finds sigils on the pillars, a shield for protection, a seal for cursing, a siphon to get power from the forest, and the witches’ mark. Then, exploring the area, she finds two oak trees from a drawing her mother had made. She realizes that there’s a path of walking stones that leads to the cabin in the Darkwood where her mother spent her last winter. The girl refused to go with her, but Immanuelle was relieved to go alone.
Immanuelle found the cabin in the forest. Inside, she found sigils drawn by her mother, one of them a curse. There, she realized that she wasn’t cursed as she had thought, but rather her mother had turned her into a curse to bring revenge on Bethel for taking Daniel from her. The same frenzied writing from the book was along the walls of the cabin. Immanuelle was angry at her mother for turning her into a curse and set fire to the cabin. She knew she would need to find her grandmother.
No one was allowed to leave Bethel without permission. Ezra could give her that permission to go outside the gates and find her grandmother for help reversing the curse. The Prophet could overturn the pass, but he wouldn’t be able to do that if he didn’t know of it.
Immanuelle planned carefully, packing her backpack with items she would need for her journey. As she sneaked into the kitchen to leave, Martha was there. She wrestled the backpack from Immanuelle and found Mariam’s journal. She tried to scare Immanuelle into staying, saying she would never be welcomed back if she left. Despite the threats, Immanuelle walked away.
Ezra and Immanuelle met as agreed. She thought that he would give her the pass, but he had a horse, cart, and supplies ready. He planned to go with her to make sure she got to her grandmother’s safely. Not long after they left, The Prophet’s guards descended on them. Martha had alerted them.
Ezra shot at the Prophets’ guards to try to keep them at bay. When that failed, he sent Immanuelle off without him, staying behind to chase away the guards. As Immanuelle fled, the next curse struck – Darkness.
Despite the darkness, Immanuelle was able to navigate herself to the Hallowed Gate, and it was opened for her as Ezra had already given the guards the pass. (Why didn’t some guards go straight to the gate?)
Outside Bethel, Immanuelle met no one on the way. Taking a corner too sharply, the cart careened off and started to go over the end of a cliff. She tried to pull the horse to keep the cart from falling but realizing that she couldn’t stop it an, andd it would drag the horse with it, she unstrapped the horse just in time. (why did she have her backpack)?
In Ishmael, the lights worked. With the help of a beggar, she found Vera’s home. When Sage opened the door, it was clear she had the right house, as the lady who answered the door, Sage, dropped the basket of laundry she was holding.
Vera did not seem happy to see her at first. She worried that Immanuelle had been followed, but then Sage noted that Immanuelle must be tired, and they let her get to bed.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, Vera and Immanuelle sat and talked. Vera did not want to help her in her quest, stating that Bethel deserved to pay for its sins. This echoed the sentiments of her guide from The Outskirts who’d said that maybe Bethel wasn’t being cursed but rather punished. Immanuelle maintained that while there were people to be punished in Bethel, there were only innocents who were worthy of being saved. While Vera seemed content to let them pay for the sins of their ancestors, Immanuelle was not.
Vera did show Immanuelle the sigil she would need to carve on her forearm to reverse the curse. This would draw the 4 powers back into herself. She would need to use the power inside herself as well, and there would be a price to pay at some point in the future. There was no way to know what the price would be. The sigil had to be done with a powerful blade, like the one from the first founder of the church or that of the Prophet.
The Prophet’s guards showed up and arrested Immanuelle, taking her back to Bethel. She was chained in the catacombs and given little to eat. She was questioned and refused to accept that she had sinned. Martha was brought to visit her, but she still refused to make the confession that they wanted. Then it was time for her trial, accused of witchcraft, murder, sorcery, thieving, whoring, and holy treason against the Good Father’s Church.
At the trial, Judith was a witness against Immanuelle, bringing up her joking comments about witchcraft from months before and claiming that she hexed Ezra. Judith looked broken after her contrition, a process where she was made to pay for her sins. Her grandfather, Abrams, surprised her by speaking on her behalf, claiming her to be sick and not of sound mind. He asked that she be spared death and banished instead. Ezra also testified. He called her a loyal friend and took responsibility for any sins that she committed. He admitted to using her power to become the next prophet. The church was filled, the crowd out for blood.
Back in confinement, Immanuelle was brought to The Prophet’s chambers. There, he made a proposal to her. He would show her mercy and forgive her if she married him. He had Ezra imprisoned as well and swore he would release him. Thinking through the options, that there was no choice, she agreed. She planned to use the Prophet’s dagger on her wedding night to draw the sigil needed to stop the plagues.
A New Plan
Immanuelle was put in Leah’s old room. Leah had died in childbirth, although her child survived. Martha, as a midwife, had to put the child before the mother and cut Leah open to deliver the child. She bled to death. The child was cursed, having no name that Martha could discern.
Esther, Ezra’s mother, came to Immanuelle’s room to plead for help. She arranged for Immanuelle to be able to see Ezra, and a kind guard helped as well. Immanuelle discovered that the Prophet had promised Ezra clemency if he confessed. He’d made the same deal with them both.
At her second trial, Immanelle confessed, and the Prophet offered her marriage for absolution. He was frail, coughing up blood, but still ruled. Meanwhile, there was some opposition from the flock, especially from one of the apostles named Isaac. However, no one would go against the Prophet.
At the wedding, there were pyres burning. After the cutting ceremony, where Immanuelle climbed onto the altar and the Prophet’s seal cut his seal into her forehead, there was a (subdued) celebration. Then the prophet announced that Ezra would be burned for his sins. As Ezra was brought to the fire, Immanuelle offered up herself in his stead, and Martha then offered up herself. Immanuelle said that she was ready to make the sacrifice and the congregation moved back inside the cathedral.
Immanualle got out of her wedding dress and climbed onto the altar in her slip. As the Prophet went to strike her with the gutting knife, she wrested it from his hand and quickly carved the sigil into her arm. Despite this, the foundation of the church started to shake and crack.
One by one, the beasts and the witches entered the cathedral. While the Prophet cowered and hid, Immanuelle went up against each of the four witches, the Lovers Mercy and Jael, Delilah, and Lilith. Lilith offered Immanuelle to join her coven. When Immanuelle declined, the fight began.
Abrams tried to defend his family and was attacked and killed by a hound at Lilith’s command. Using the power of the plagues, Immanuelle fought back.
Each witch represented one of the plagues, Delilah for blood, Mercy for blight, Jael for darkness. The first three witches succumbed with minimal fight, but Lilith was out to kill. She and Immanuelle fought, with Immanuelle using the gutting knife to stab Lilith. Lilith removed the knife from her chest and continued fighting. She had to fight against the roots and trees that tried to attack and capture both her and Ezra. Immanuelle managed to stab her again, and Ezra eventually managed to free himself enough from the attacking trees to shoot her. The final blow was done by Immanuelle, as she caught the gutting knife thrown to her by Vera, and struck it into the center of Lilith’s skull.
All that ruin and pain had been wrought not from the Mother’s darkness or the Father’s light, but from the sins of man.
They had brought this fate upon themselves. They were complicit in their own damnation.Immanuelle
The Prophet tries to get the guards to arrest and burn Immanuelle, but the women of the church and some of the men block the guards. Then Immanuelle explained the need to change things in the church.
The world you want can’t be bought with blood. You build it with the choices you make, with the things you do. Either we can keep purging, keep the pyres burning, keep hoping that our prayers will be enough to save us — or we can build something better. A world without slaughter.Immanuelle
With that, she chooses to show the Prophet mercy.
The Ending of The Year of the Witching
Ezra and Immanuelle are living together in The Haven. The Prophet’s condition has worsened and his time will pass soon. There is a schism in the church over whom the next Prophet will be, and the threat of a holy war. Immanelle is waiting for whatever payment will be exacted from her. The burning pyres are going out. There is an expectant energy, as Ezra and Immanuelle commit to avoiding the mistakes of the past, and to make a new path. She names the coming year “Year of the Dawn”.
- Why was Vera not killed?
- Why did the guards breach protocol to get Immanuelle but not Vera?
- What happened to the bodies of the witches from the church?
- How is Leah’s baby significant? I imagine she’ll show up in another book.
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