By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 23, 2020
Witches have a long history in literature. While in fairy tales and folklore, they often appeared as antagonists, many argue that this is a reflection of historically sexist notions that women shouldn't be powerful. As many literary scholars have noted, in some of these older stories, women who are good are portrayed as weak and vulnerable, while strong female characters are inherently wicked. But as our culture has progressed, so has our literature! Here we present nine novels featuring witches as protagonists.
Some of the most fascinating novels about witches draw from historical episodes like the Salem Witch trials, a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts in the 1690s. These events have underscored the notion that many cultures are threatened by the idea of powerful, independent women.
In The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, an elderly woman, weak with infirmity, writes a letter to her granddaughter revealing the secret she has closely guarded for six decades: how she survived Salem when her mother did not.
Another novel inspired by a historic event from the 1600s is The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The book depicts the fallout after a deadly storm in an isolated Arctic Norwegian village kills all the men. The women are left on their own and, a few years later, they must defend themselves when a sinister figure descends on the town and accuses the tenacious survivors of witchcraft.
For a lighter and more whimsical take on history, try The Witches of New York by Ami McKay. The year is 1880, two hundred years after the trials in Salem. Three women in New York City find strength in numbers after they come together to run a tea shop offering some extraordinary brews.
Stories of young witches learning to understand their powers are wonderfully relatable. You could say that transitioning from child to adult is an apt comparison—a process of learning to handle unfamiliar strengths and abilities. These three YA fantasies all depict a young person who is coming to terms with some strange, new realities. (And they're all the first in a series!)
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor is the story of twelve-year-old Sunny Nwazue, an American-born albino child of Nigerian parents. After moving with her family back to Nigeria, she struggles to find her place. That is, until she discovers she has latent magical powers.
In The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden reimagines an ancient Russian folktale about Vasya, a young woman who must learn how to harness her hidden abilities to save her village and herself. The story is dark and immersive and beautifully told.
And who said all witches had to be female? Carry On is the fanfiction spinoff for Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Along with central character, Simon Snow, the rollicking story features a diverse cast of supernatural beings, including vampires, ghosts, and monsters. Plus there's romance!
As the saying goes, a family that conjures together... It only stands to reason that witchy abilities would be hereditary, right? And all the better to have built-in mentors to help you learn the tricks of the trade. In these stories of witch families, relationships are both tested and strengthened by the magical powers they share. All of these books are also the first in a series.
Anne Rice is known for her lush, epic tales of the occult. The Witching Hour introduces a dynasty of four centuries of witches—a family given to poetry and incest, murder and philosophy. Set in New Orleans, this saga spans three hundred years and covers a lot of territory.
In Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen tells the story of that enchanted tree, and the extraordinary family who tends it. The Waverleys have always been a curious clan, endowed with peculiar gifts that make them outsiders even in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina.
For a truly magical experience, read A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. When Oxford scholar (and witch descendant), Diana Bishop, discovers a coveted and magically essential text, it turns her life upside-down. A reluctant enchantress, Diana must learn to accept her legacy as she works to help her magical community.
So there you have it! Celebrate the spooky season with a few of these books about powerful women (and a few men) who generally try to use their powers for good. And, as always, let us know if we've missed any of your favorites.