An Absorbing and Bewitching Alternate History
by Jessica Spotswood
Series: The Cahill Witch Chronicles (Book 1)
Original Publication Date: February 7, 2012
Paperback Reprint: January 3, 2013
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons / Speak
Starred Reviews: VOYA
Everybody knows Cate Cahill and her sisters are eccentric. Too pretty, too reclusive, and far too educated for their own good. But the truth is even worse: they’re witches. And if their secret is discovered by the priests of the Brotherhood, it would mean an asylum, a prison ship—or an early grave.
Before her mother died, Cate promised to protect her sisters. But with only six months left to choose between marriage and the Sisterhood, she might not be able to keep her word… especially after she finds her mother’s diary, uncovering a secret that could spell her family’s destruction. Desperate to find alternatives to their fate, Cate starts scouring banned books and questioning rebellious new friends, all while juggling tea parties, shocking marriage proposals, and a forbidden romance with the completely unsuitable Finn Belastra.
If what her mother wrote is true, the Cahill girls aren’t safe. Not from the Brotherhood, the Sisterhood—not even from each other.
In order to appreciate this excellent novel, it is essential that the reader recognize quickly what Born Wicked isn’t. First off, it is not a dystopia; to be such, everything in New England, the broad setting of the novel, would have to be “as bad as possible” (to quote the OED). This is not the case, as many people in Cate’s (our heroine) little town of Chatham are content and happy. Freedom may not reign, but this is not a state where all live in utter misery. Second, despite a few scattered references that seem to hint at world-building, this is very much a closed set. These references simply serve to emphasize Chatham’s seclusion and the backwards thinking of the Brotherhood, the ruling elite. Nearly all the drama occurs in a handful of locations in town or at Cate’s house, and what details we learn about the way life is lived in these alternative 1890s is on an unobtrusive, need-to-know basis.
Religion, of course, plays a significant role, but only in a vague way. We are not told what denomination, or even what faith, the Brotherhood follows, only that they rule by interpreting and enforcing the word of “the Lord”. And that’s sufficient, for what’s important are the repressive effects of this religion’s tenets on women, and especially witches. (Obviously, since witches and New England conjure up one and only one time period and location in the mind of an American reader, it is impossible to think of the Brotherhood’s faith as anything but Puritanism. But this is Alternate History – one label that does fit – and such repression of women can be found in a variety of religions and states, from the democracy of classical Athens to today’s radical Islam.)
Though there is action, including spells gone bad and the occasional violent behavior of members of the Brotherhood, this is not an adventure story. Think instead of a Hitchcock movie – the general outline there is to introduce the characters, place them against a backdrop of mystery and intrigue, and commence to turn the screws on the players, making their commonplace stagger into a frightening unknown. That said, though Born Wicked accomplishes that, building up a tangled web of a plot that drags its characters into grave danger, it is neither horror story nor true mystery.
Although it touches the fringes of a variety of genres, when all Born Wicked isn’t is cast aside, what’s left is basically a Jane Austen novel, perhaps as Nathaniel Hawthorne might have written it. The casual pace of the story in its early stages, the likeable and capable protagonist, the careful placing of characters in relation to one another, the romantic entanglements, the never-ending complications – it’s all here (including a father who’s not very aware of his daughters’ lives), with the addition of a degree of suspense that dear Jane never approached, even in Northanger Abbey. It is vital that the reader grasp this as close to page one as possible, else she will create a set of false expectations that will go unrealized. What’s worse, she will miss out on an extremely well-conceived, well-written, and perfectly plotted novel, that not only holds one’s interest chapter after chapter, but which eventually creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia that hangs heavy even after the book’s been set aside.
— Jennifer Michelle
5 of 5 Hearts. An Absorbing and Bewitching Alternate History.
If Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne had collaborated on a novel, it would have looked something like Born Wicked. A nicely written, imaginative excursion into an alternate past, with a good balance of suspense, romance, and plot complications to keep the pages turning quickly.