The small town of Hebden Bridge is known for two things: The first, it’s bridge; the second, it’s women. Ten years ago, Elle, Niamh, Helena, and Leonie fought and won against the warlock, Dabney Hale, and his group of witches and warlocks who sought to both reveal magic to the world … and to conquer it. They have had ten years of peace, of drifting apart. But now the world needs them to come together again in order to kill the Sullied Child, a child of extraordinary power who will call forth the Leviathan, one of the three great demons, and unleash hell upon the world.
Elle is a nurse who dotes on her children and loves her husband. She is the last of the Device witches — a family as ancient as Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC) — or so she thought. Her daughter, Holly, is showing signs of power and Elle has only one person to turn to: Niamh. Niamh lost her fiance in the fight against Hale, but more than that, she lost her sister who chose to side with evil and allow a demon to possess her. Now, she works as a vet in Hebden Bridge, trying not to fall for the local delivery man while the two of them bond over horror movies.
Helena rose to power after the battle and now heads HMRC, ruling with an iron fist. When her oracles find the Sullied Child, she can think of only one of her sisters to bring in for help. Niamh, who — despite her gentle and quiet demeanor — is an adept whose power may well rival Helena’s. And then there’s Leonie, the last of them, the perpetual outcast. Black and lesbian, she never fit in to the cookie-cutter coven that told her how to use her power, how to be a witch, how to embrace magic the ‘proper’ way. Having formed her own coven, Diaspora — made of non-white witches and warlocks, as well as magic practitioners of many paths — she has found her own peace.
When Niamh finds out a truth about the Sullied Child, called Theo, she reaches out to Leonie for help … and ends up making a choice that will change the world.
This book is more about womanhood, sisterhood, and self-identity than it is about romance, magic, or drama — though it has all of that in spades. The romance for Niamh is a sweet song playing in the background while Niamh seeks to connect with Theo, who, for all their power, is traumatized, terrified, and helpless. Many fantasy books lightly coat sensitive and heavy topics in elven robes, vampiric coffins, or magical towers — like cheese over vegetables — to make their point subtle and gentle. This book, on the other hand, disdains cheese. It talks openly about racism, how Leonie, as the only black girl in her childhood friend group, had to behave a certain way, talk a certain way, and learn magic a certain way in order to be accepted. It talks about colonialism and how the British covens ‘rescued’ indigenous peoples from their barbaric and uneducated beliefs, teaching them to perform magic in the ‘right’ way. It also talks about gender identity, how HMRC divides magic and positions behind a strict gender binary, choosing not to acknowledge transgender or LGBTQIA+ individuals.
And the narrator of much of these political commentaries is Leonie who, unfortunately, sometimes becomes more a professor than a person. Leonie is very aware of her privilege, being able to afford to start her own coven and having the power to rule it, but there’s almost no sense of her coven beyond their LGBTQIA+ status and that they do not accept white practitioners. Less time is spent on Leonie and her girlfriend than on Niamh and her movie dates with her delivery man, and much of the time other characters spend talking about or with Leonie only serve to enhance her otherness and outsider status, rather than on how she fits together with the other three women. I do wish Leonie had been given more screen time, and that I had been given more time to get to know her as a character, especially in the scenes where all four women came together in a show of raw power where Leonie felt, at times, more like an observer than a powerful witch, especially compared to Niamh and Helena.
Elle is a cheerful, willfully blind healer who wants to keep the peace. She doesn’t like fighting, doesn’t like the ugly side of reality, and hides her true appearance by wearing a glamour around her husband. If it weren’t for her daughter suddenly showing powers, Elle would have happily kept going as she was, half living in the romanticized past and the cheerfully pastoral present. But when push comes to shove, Elle is more than willing to stand her ground. While she will prevaricate between this side or that, she has her own line in the sand, and when those she loves are put in danger, she will fight back. And how she chose to fight, too, was an interesting choice, giving back to someone the harm they had caused in equal measure; Elle is not vengeful, she is exactingly fair.
Niamh is powerful, has always known she was powerful, and has never doubted her ability to do anything. Even when facing down her twin sister ten years ago, she moved with confidence and surety. It isn’t until Theo that she begins to feel out of her depth when the young warlock — who will not or cannot speak, who has lived a life of horrific pain — ends up being a young witch. Theo is transgender, and for once Niamh is out of her depth. How does she help and support Theo? How does she defend Theo from Helena and HRMC? Because it’s not a choice, has never been a choice, to give Theo back. Theo is her chance to do it again, to save someone … as she couldn’t save her sister. Helping Theo doesn’t assuage the guilt, but it gives her a chance when she didn’t think she’d ever have another one.
And then there’s Helena. Vain, insecure, anxious, and high strung, she’s been negged by her mother most of her life. Even her position as head of the coven isn’t enough; her mother will still find ways to pick at her. At her appearance, her weight, her choices as a witch, as a mother… day in and day out. Helena craves power, craves respect and acknowledgement. Niamh, from a poorer house, should have looked up to Helena, but Niamh is more powerful. Elle is more lovely and more loved. Leonie not only left, she made her own coven, as if HMRC wasn’t enough, as if Helena wasn’t enough. And now the three of them are trying to say that Theo — the Sullied Child, prophesied to bring about the monster known as Leviathan — is a girl. Helena is a cold, calculating TERF who has decided opinions and will make them known.
The author has a lot to say in this book about gender, identity, history, and what it is to be a woman. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the writing and character building sometimes suffered because of the message. The pacing was uneven in parts, where the focus would go from an insightful moment on love and acceptance to a lengthy talk about the patriarchy and then to some magic and sisterhood.
And, speaking of sisterhood, there is a choice in here — made by the characters — that rubbed me the wrong way. Elle’s husband is cheating on her, and her friends know. (Hell, in a small town like Hebden Bridge, it’s very likely most of the town knows.) And both Leonie and Niamh have made the choice to not say anything because Elle’s happier not knowing. When her daughter finds out and wants to tell her mom, Niamh erases her memory because … isn’t it mean to Elle to let her know her husband is cheating on her? Because, thanks to the guilt, he’s nice to her when he gets home? Taking away Holly’s agency by simply taking away her memory — without asking for consent — and taking Elle’s ability to make a decision about her own life, feels a little discordant with the themes of the rest of the book. That is, however, simply my opinion on the character’s actions.
However, all that said, the story is interesting. The approach to magic, to covens, and Leonie’s Diaspora — with it’s teachings brought in from all over the world, from so many cultures — is one I very much enjoyed. It’s nice to see witchcraft viewed through a larger and more inclusive lens, and I do think this book is worth the read for what it is.