Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Year of the Witching, by Alexis Henderson

Thanks to Hulu, the true political subtlety of Margaret Attwood's Handmaid's Tale was long ago lost to the spectacle of exaggerated misogyny.  On its face, Henderson's debut novel seems to want to travel down that same blunt force approach to politics by creating a religious dystopia where women suffer for no other reason than because men can get away with making them do so.  With the blurbs on the back of the book, that's certainly the way the publisher is marketing this novel.  But Attwood's condemnation of Reagan's neoconservatism and reborn American exceptionalism was always more than a dystopian fantasy novel and Henderson's subtle and engrossing book is similarly more than the sum of its parts.  They are similar works, but not for the reasons that are immediately apparent.

In Bethel, the Prophet's interpretation of the Father's Will and the Holy Scriptures is law.  Along with his trusted Apostles, these men rule over the people, keeping order and surrounding them with fear of the outside and of the encroaching Darkwood forest.  No one dares to enter the forest, which is still teeming with the witches that Bethel's founder beat into submission ages ago.  Certainly, shepherdess Immanuelle would never venture there on her own free will.  But one day, chasing after a runaway ram, she is forced to enter it and is accosted by two witches who hand her a gift -- a journal belonging to her mother Miriam (who died in childbirth).  The book is full of forbidden writings and Immanuelle devours the book for glimpses of her mother's life.  Miriam, who had enjoyed the trust and love of the Prophet fell from grace due to infidelity.  For her actions, Miriam was persecuted, but not before setting up a terrible retribution of four plagues that now Immanuelle has unwittingly unleashed.

The plagues though are really the natural consequence of the betrayals, jealousies, fears, and hatreds that underpin the dangerous and ultimately unsustainable status quo.  As Bethel itself unravels, Immanuelle becomes the only one who can make it right, but doing so will require knowledge that she doesn't have, the assistance of people who refused to help, and mercy from people unaccustomed to granting it.  Can she succeed where no one else wants her to?

Dark and complex, there's a lot to chew on in this book.  I found it too gory and bloody for my tastes, so I wouldn't recommend it if copious descriptions of bodily fluids are not your thing, but it is a compelling story.  There is a complex back story that supports the twisted and overlapping contemporary alliances that drive the story and make it interesting (and difficult to fairly summarize).  This isn't a great book for developing sympathetic characters, but it is definitely good for creating really detestable villains.  Immanuelle herself becomes ultimately a dark anti-hero, but in the more ambiguous background of Trumpian politics, this works surprisingly well.

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