Boo-Cause Reading’s Spooktacular, hosted by Because Reading, focuses on different “spooky” topics throughout the month of October; you can view the schedule at the link. Participants can interpret the topics in any way they wish. Since this is a book blog, I’ll be including at least a few book recommendations with most of my posts.
Witches have been a staple in fairytales, folktales, and spooky stories for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. From the ugly, wicked old women in “Hansel and Gretel” and other Grimm’s stories, to the glamourous but evil stepmother in “Sleeping Beauty,” from Oz’s Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witches of the East and West to Narnia’s White Witch to almost every girl and woman in the Harry Potter books, witches both good and evil have captured the imagination of generations of readers and listeners… sometimes with tragic effects. The men and women hung, drowned, or pressed to death during the Salem Witch trials were only a fraction of the numbers killed throughout Europe at the height of the witch burnings. Many were innocent of any wrongdoing; some were practitioners of herbal medicine who sought to heal.
Thankfully, those days are past, at least in much of the Western European-influenced world. Today, witchcraft in the European sense is largely seen as fiction. The modern practice of Wicca, although it is based in part on pre-Christian beliefs, arose in the 20th century. A pagan faith whose beliefs incorporate both a respect for nature and a belief in the Goddess (and sometimes other deities), it is far from the Satanic, devil-worshipping (and largely imagined) witchcraft so feared by Europeans throughout the Early Modern era.
Other cultures have their own definitions of witchcraft and/or sorcery, often but not always defined as practices designed to bring about harm in a supernatural way. I don’t have the time or the knowledge to go into them in any depth, so I’m going to focus my recommendations on books with Western/European-style witches.
My favorite witchy books
Title links go to my reviews. Goodreads links can be found at the end of each description.
The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling. A school for witches and wizards, a Chosen One, a trifold friendship, a running battle between good and evil… Practically everyone knows this series by now, through either the books or the films, so I hardly need describe it, need I? (Goodreads link)
A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life (The All Souls Trilogy), by Deborah Harkness. To quote from my review of the first book, the series is “… a heady brew of alchemy, academia, science, rare books, medieval chivalric orders, wine, wolf pack behavior, and above all the magical, dangerous, and seductive world of creatures: witches, vampires, and daemons, relations between whom are forbidden by covenant and policed by the sinister Congregation. Woven into the mix are underlying themes of fear and desire, individual freedom, and the relationship of predator and prey… When Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch with a powerful talent, accidentally calls up a bespelled and long-hidden manuscript while researching in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, she attracts the interest not only of witches but of vampires and daemons—and the protection of vampire Matthew Clairmont. As Diana’s relationship with Clairmont deepens from reluctant protectee to friend to lover, the questions multiply. Why is Diana’s power locked away? What is in the manuscript—and is it the manuscript or Diana who is the true focus of so much nonhuman interest and desire? With everyone, including Matthew, keeping (or revealing) secrets, whom can Diana trust?” (Goodreads link)
Dark Witch, Shadow Spell, and Blood Magick (the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy), by Nora Roberts. Three witches, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer and their cousin Iona Sheehan, descendants of the Dark Witch Sorcha, are fated to battle Sorcha’s ancient enemy, an evil sorceror able to move at will through different times. They are joined in their quest, and their circle, by three friends: two ordinary humans and another witch. Robert infuses modern-day Ireland with thousand-year-old magic and deeply-felt romance to create what may well be my favorite of her series. (Goodreads link)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s Narnia series began with this engaging book, and it’s one of the best in the series. When the four Pevensey children discover a portal to another world through an old wardrobe, they are drawn into an epic battle between good and evil, between Aslan the lion and the talking creatures of Narnia, and the White Witch and her followers, who have kept the country in winter’s grip for over a century. Adults will recognized Lewis’s thinly veiled Christian allegory, but most young readers simply enjoy the magical, enchanting adventure. (Goodreads link)
Dance Upon the Air, Heaven and Earth, Face the Fire (Three Sisters Island trilogy), by Nora Roberts. The basic premise of this magic-infused romance trilogy is similar to that of the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy. Long ago, three witches—sisters by choice, if not by family—conjured Three Sisters Island out of the ocean off New England’s coast, to be a safe refuge. But their circle was broken, and all three failed or betrayed their oaths in some way. Now three new witches must come together to defeat the same evil force: Nell, untrained, afraid, and on the run; Ripley, the brash and competent policewoman who resolutely turned her back on her magic; and Mia, a powerful witch with a broken heart. Each must face her darkest fears and find the courage to accept not only herself, but love, or Three Sisters Island will crumble into the sea from which it came. (Goodreads link)
Morrigan’s Cross, Dance of the Gods, and Valley of Silence (the Circle Trilogy), by Nora Roberts. As much fantasy adventure as romance, the Circle Trilogy brings together a 13th-century sorceror swept from his own time int ours, a modern witch, a vampire slayer, an ancient vampire, and a shapeshifter and princess from another world. Their geas: to defeat an army of vampires led by an evil vampire queen. It’s compelling and sometimes disturbing reading, sometimes darker and more gruesome than I usually tolerate, but what keeps me returning to it are the human bonds of care and love formed between the six main characters. (Goodreads link)
Lammas Night, by Katherine Kurtz. Drawing heavily on the tradition of Wicca and the wartime letters of Wiccan Dion Fortune, and set during World War II, Kurtz’s novel recounts a (fictional) attempt on the part of England’s witches to prevent Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain. Apprised of Hitler’s plans to use occult means to invade Britain, Colonel John “Gray” Graham, the leader of the Oakwood Group (or coven) must persuade the occult groups in Britain to work together to thwart the Nazi scheme, culminating in a great working of magic on Lammas Night. He is aided by his friend, Prince William, the Duke of Clarence (the fictional younger brother of George VI and the Duke of Windsor), who is sympathetic despite his lack of magical talent or knowledge. Threaded through with themes of reincarnation, self-sacrifice, selfless love of country, and pagan values of balance and connection to the land, Lammas Night is an unforgettable alt-historical fantasy. (Goodreads link)
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. The witch of Blackbird Pond isn’t actually a witch, but the Quaker widow’s neighbors in Wethersfield, Connecticut, certainly think she is. When pretty, vivacious, orphaned Kit Tyler arrives in Wethersfield to live with her aunt Rachel, dour uncle Matthew, and cousins Judith and Mercy, she rebels agains the hardships and strictures of life in Puritan New England, so different from her native Barbados. Hannah Tupper’s isolated cottage becomes her secret refuge, where she is sometimes joined by Prudence, a child whom she teaches to read, and Nat, a sea captain’s son who keeps an eye on Hannah’s welfare. Slowly, Kit begins to find her place in her new home… until the night when the villagers go on a witch hunt. When I was in middle school, The Witch of Blackbird Pond was standard reading, and I have loved it ever since. (Goodreads link)
Stars of Fortune, Bay of Sighs, Island of Glass (the Guardians trilogy), by Nora Roberts. The Guardians trilogy is not dissimilar to the Circle trilogy in theme and style, but it has its own distinct flavor… particularly since the first two books take place on Mediterranean islands. Six guardians are summoned, fated to find and protect the Stars: mystical creations given as gifts to an infant queen, and then hidden from the fallen goddess who sought to claim and defile hem. Six guardians or seekers: a sorcerer (essentially a male witch), a seer, a shapeshifter (werewolf), a timeshifter, a mermaid, and an immortal. The author is Nora Roberts, so two of the guardians pair up in each book, but again, the focus is as much or more on their search, and their battles against the evil goddess’s minions, as it is on the romance. Roberts is excellent at creating a sense of place, and the different locales (Corfu, Capri, and Ireland) contribute a lot to the atmosphere of these books. I also love the different skills and personalities of the six seekers, the dynamics at play between them, and the challenge of forging a team—a family—from six such disparate people. (Goodreads link)