Marcia reviews Star Cursed, The Cahill Witch Chronicles Book #2, by Jessica Spotswood


I was more than a little excited to pick up my copy of Star Cursed, the sequel to Born Wicked and book two of The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood. After Wicked‘s climactic ending — involving a serious choice and the chaos of discovering manipulation — I was sure that the Cahill sisters would have another thrilling adventure. And I wasn’t wrong, not exactly.

Part of what drew me to Wicked in the first place was the lesbian content — one of the few things I read about the book before diving in was that one of the main characters was queer. And since I have the bad habit of not reading about books before I have them in hand (so as not to spoil them, understand), I assumed (wrongly) that Cate Cahill’d had her chance at narration. Now was, naturally, the time to hear Maura’s story from her point of view.

It’s not that I don’t love Cate — I do! — but much of her story is preoccupied with her heterosexual love interest who, in addition to being heterosexual, almost seems incidental to much of the plot. And while Cate is a perfectly serviceable narrator, a lot is going on that doesn’t involve her. What about Maura? What are her motivations, here?

After Maura’s experience at the end of Wicked, her behavior and motives take a dramatic turn — but what she’s thinking is as much your guess as anyone’s. Despite the influx of new female characters, Maura’s queerness seems to get shoved into the back of her — and Cate’s — mind. There are even a few scenes where Maura flirts with boys. For manipulation, Cate suspects, or not. So, for someone whose initial draw into this universe was queer potential, Star Cursed is a bit of a let down. If Maura were written as bi- or pan-sexual, I would have no problem with this — but it comes off feeling like Maura’s sexuality is a plot point, rather than something integral to who she is.

I did, however, enjoy the book. Typically, the middle editions of trilogies are the lesser regarded “siblings” to introductions and conclusions, simply existing to bridge the gap between the two and build character and tension. Star Cursed has moments where it falls into this category, but for the most part, the story feels as alive and thrilling as it did through my lightning marathon of Born Wicked. We learn more about this alternate history, hate more of what the Brotherhood edicts, explore more magic, and bear witness to some pretty spectacular “her”story.

Aside from the lessened presence of Maura and her queerness, the same things bugged me about Cursed as did in Wicked. Because Cate’s narration is first person, and because she so frequently makes choices I disagree with, there were a few times when I ran up against an I and became so frustrated I had to put the book down. “Just talk to your sister!” I grumbled, more than once.

For those familiar with the female-driven fantasy genre, there are certainly aspects of the plot that can be seen coming. But there are also expectations that turn on their head. I’m not sure if the last of the trilogy will fall under the former or latter — and I’m looking forward to finding out. Gathering evidence from Cursed reveals that the finale will either [potential spoilers follow] give in to the lazy trope of evil lesbian witch (huh, have you heard that one before?) or something entirely different. I’ll be keeping an eye out, Jessica Spotswood. Here’s hoping that Sisters’ Fate lives up to the amazing universe it takes place in, gives readers a thrilling ride, and respects queer identity. A full hand to play, perhaps, but I have faith. Expect Fate to hit stores in August 2014.

Marcia reviews Born Wicked: The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Book One, by Jessica Spotswood


Quick note: This review does not discuss in-novel lesbianism at length, as I consider the hints and reveal to be a pretty significant spoiler. You’ll just have to trust me. Lesbians are here.

The year is 1896, the place is New England — but it is not the New England we know, not even the New England of American history. In Born Wicked, author Jessica Spotswood spins the alternate history of an area settled and ruled by the Sisters of Persephone, a group of powerful witches who lead with the shocking notion that gender, race, and religion are no cause for discrimination. The Brotherhood (a Puritanical organization that rises out of the fear of powerful women) believes otherwise, however, and after a brutal war, the Brotherhood has conquered New England, murdered the witches, and established a new system that preaches the folly and uselessness of girls, and worse, the raw danger of witchcraft.

The Cahill sisters — eldest (and narrator of Born Wicked) Cate, middle child Maura, and precocious baby Tess — are witches. Their mother, now past on, was a witch in secret, and she has passed the gift (and the burden of secrecy) on to her daughters.

With a dead mother and a mostly absent father, arrangements for a governess are made. How will the Cahill girls keep their secret hidden with another nosy body sharing their roof? Complicating matters, Cate nears her seventeenth birthday — the date by which she must announce her intention to either marry, or join the Sisterhood — an offshoot of the Brotherhood Cate loathes. Cate also receives a letter from the mysterious Z. R. that warns her of coming danger and hints at a prophesy…

Aside from the alternate history that Spotswood crafts (a history that seems all too similar to a world that certain factions of the world might embrace now!), Born Wicked offers a solidly developed character study of a young girl charged with the protection and rearing of her still-younger sisters. The ever-present threat of magic being discovered, of the embrace of education, and of simply being female all press the plot forward at an exciting pace. A world set against women creates the need for various female networks — connections made in secret, and made stronger by what they hide from the men who would have them sent to the mysterious Haywood, or even killed.

The “lesbian” aspect of this story plays a primarily background role, as Cate is most certainly attracted to men, but I expect to see it expanded upon in the sequels. Even if Cate is interested in men, she is quite open-minded considering the society she was raised in: she is conscious of the proposed dangers of magic and of such folly as lust, but slowly begins to make choices for herself and her sisters, not some ingrained stigma. I actually found Cate’s male love interest to be utterly charming — and it takes a very particular kind of characterization to make me tolerate heterosexual romance in my leisure reading!

Pick up Born Wicked as soon as possible. You’ll be drawn in by the sisters, kept open-mouthed by the threat of the Brotherhood, and tickled when lesbianism is the icing on the cake of this already very delicious book. A quick read, and appropriate for younger readers as well as old, Born Wicked left me hungry and eager for the sequel, Star Cursed which is (thankfully!) out now.