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ARC provided by HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.
Friends, when I first heard about this anthology staring witches, I almost sold my soul for it. Instead I sent a begging request to Harlequin, but I would have tried any amount of magic to get my hands on this. And with good reason, because this was nothing short of amazing.
I know this doesn’t come out until late August, a day after my birthday to be exact, but something about this ARC just compelled me to read it this early. And I mean it, I couldn’t put this down. And when I did, each night I found myself being like, “just one story before bed!” and then I’d back to back read three or four, staying up way too late. I loved this, and I truly believe that it is nothing short of magical.
I think three stories really stood out for me, but there is honestly so much to love here. But my favorite was easily Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May. It meant so much to me that I instantly reread it, with just as many tears in my eyes. It was powerful, and important, and is going to change so many lives. I feel so blessed to have read it, and I’ll carry it with me forever. Love Spell by Anna-Marie McLemore was also a masterpiece, and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read in my entire life. And The One Who Stayed by Nova Ren Suma also left me speechless from all the emotions it was able to evoke from me. I promise you, there are so many good stories in this anthology, but these three were my personal favorites.
I’m going to break down each short story with my thoughts, opinions, and individual star rating!
➽ 1. Starsong by Tehlor Kay Mejia – ★★★★
“People find me when they need to see the beauty they feel.”
This was so adorable. This is an ownvoices Latinx story about a sixteen-year-old girl, who loves painting, and make up, and reading charts and horoscopes for people. She has a very large social media presence, and people pay her to show them the things that they are unable to see. But this beautiful bruja is still living with the consequences of one bad decision she made a year ago. TW: drug use. Luna feels lonely, since her journey of changing her life, but that changes one night when a cute girl messages her. Also, I loved seeing Luna question if the girl she was talking to was queer or not. Like, so relatable, I swear. The story turns into two cute girls texting about science vs. magic, and I need so much more. I loved this. Also, this talks briefly about a polya relationship too that hires Luna, and give me all the polya rep and support and normalization!
➽ 2. Afterbirth by Andrea Cremer – ★★★
“In the eyes of the village, my truths cannot be suffered to live.”
I really enjoyed this little tale, set in 1600s New England during the witch trials. We are shown a very difficult childbirth scene (TW: complications during childbirth) that brings suspicion to the woman that delivered the child. Throw in mysterious spell books, a trial that a woman has no possibility of winning, and maybe even the Devil himself, and we have a very fun and spooky witch story that was perfect for this anthology.
➽ 3. The Heart in Her Hands by Tess Sharpe – ★★★
“He can’t fill the empty space in her because there are none. There is no emptiness in a devoted heart.”
Okay, first off, this is a tea lovers dream of a short story. I was filled with so much happiness just by all the tea descriptions in this book. Next, this was a wonderful story about soulmates and who you choose to love is the one you should be with. This is also queer and beautiful. And it really talks about the expectations your family can put, and sometimes force, on you. But how becoming who you want to be, and who you want to be it with, is more important than anything. This was adorable. TW: loss of a parent.
➽ 4. Death in the Sawtooths by Lindsay Smith – ★★★★
“A person can tell you anything, but bones—those tell the truth.”
Witches, warlocks, and wizards; this one had the whole magical hierarchy set in this town. Our main character is heavily judged because her patron is the Lady of Slumber, and she deals with the thing everyone fears most: death. So, this town carries some very heavy prejudices. But it ends up having a beautiful message about how everyone has a choice, and a person should only be judged on the actions they choose to perform. But sadly, people continue to stereotype off their prejudices. Even when the person they ostracize the most is the only one that can help them. I was hoping this was going to turn F/F, but it was still a nice relationship from bully to friend. TW: bullying, death, and prepping dead bodies.
➽ 5. The Truth About Queenie by Brandy Colbert – ★★★★★
“I do it for me, because if I don’t accept all the parts of myself, how can I be who I really am?”
This story was so damn good, and immersed me so damn hard, that I forget I was reading a short story in a witch anthology and was shocked when the witch aspect came into play. Yeah, this one was honestly perfection. This short story had everything, and it was nothing short of a delight to read. And the rep? This is an ownvoices story, and I believe all the characters we are introduced to are African American. And issues are brought up seamlessly, like how being black in a white neighborhood is hard enough, on top of also being a witch. The main character has panic attacks, is dealing with a loss of a friend, and is constantly worried about another loved one’s health. Also, the family members in this story and the strong emphasis on family was beautiful. And how much it means to have representation in something you’re passionate about. And it even talks about what it is like to be friends with someone famous, and how weird it is, because you knew them when they weren’t famous. And I’ve only told a few close friends about this, but this is actually something super near and dear to my heart, and I am not sure I’ve ever read that perspective in a book before. But mostly, this book is about owning who you are, letting people feel the weight of who you are, but making your own choices, and believing in yourself, and only letting yourself and your actions define you. Friends, get your hands on this short story. I promise, it’s worth the price of this anthology alone.
➽ 6. The Moonapple Menagerie by Shveta Thakrar – ★★
“Would you trade your friends for your deepest heart’s desire?”
This one was still fun to read, I just didn’t love it. It is about a coven of teenagers that are putting on a play and they all have different roles in the production. Oh, and they can all shift into different animals! The cast is all super diverse too, which I loved, and our main character, Shalini, is in charge of creating the perfect ending for the play. Yet, she feels like she needs a little help, so she asks a churel (demon) to help her, but obviously they are not willing to do it for free! But this is truly a story about friendship, and how being honest with the ones you love is always important. Also, don’t make deals with demons.
➽ 7. The Legend of Stone Mary by Robin Talley – ★★★★
“Everybody for miles around used to remember the story of Mary Keegan’s curse, but you wouldn’t know it now.”
You all, this one was spooky as heck to read! This would make the perfect Halloween read. Seriously, it has such a creepy atmosphere, setting, and even writing style. Robin Talley is talented. Also, this features a bit of F/F romance which you all know I’m always looking for. But this is a short story about a girl who has a very important lineage. And this is also a story about how important it is to not forget and repeat history, especially when a very powerful witch is still after revenge. TW: death and bullying.
➽ 8. The One Who Stayed by Nova Ren Suma – ★★★★★
“We used to be little, and soft. We used to say yes before we even heard the entire question. We used to think we had no recourse for making someone’s heart ache like ours have ached, for resetting the balance in the universe, for striving for the thing we’re not supposed to want but we still do want: revenge.”
First off, major TW for sexual assault, molestation, and rape. The dread you feel while reading this book, knowing what is going to happen, is something I don’t even have words for. But this story was perfection. It was powerful, and feminist, and evoked every emotion from me. Also, it has major vibes of The Craft, and you all know I’m always here for that. Also, I could have highlighted this entire story. This story will be so much better if you go into it blind, but I will say that it is about a group of girls in the woods, waiting to meet their newest member. And Nova Ren Suma just made my auto-buy list.
➽ 9. Divine Are the Stars by Zoraida Córdova – ★★★★
“…But memories make things grander and more beautiful when you want to think fondly on them.”
This was such a beautiful, ownvoices, Latnix, magical realism story that I want so much more of. Zoraida always completely blows me away with her lyrical writing, and this was no exception. This is a story about a girl named Marimar, who goes back to Colorado because her grandmother is dying. And even though it at first feels like this is a story about how death follows her, it’s such a beautifully gripping tale about family, and all the messy parts of family that people don’t like to put on display. And how family can truly do some horrible things, but it’s always important to know yourself, where you came from, and know what you need to be.
➽ 10. Daughters of Baba Yaga by Brenna Yovanoff – ★★★
“The moon is full, and even the stars are scared of me.”
This is obviously a twist on the tale of Baba Yaga, which surrounds three girls. And this one is filled with so much good. It’s basically about three witches, who want different things to change. TW: bullying and a bit graphic animal dissecting scene. This book stars a butcher’s daughter, so it is a little descriptive on animal organs and cuts and things of that nature, so use caution. But this has major The Craft vibes, too! Another other character was from Jewish descent, and it was amazing to see and read. And really damn important. There is such a good discussion around trying to “fit in” and be more “American” because you are embarrassed by what you are. This story even briefly talks about CCCP and the image of the hammer/sickle. There is a lot going on in this story, a lot, and maybe that’s why I didn’t love it as much? Or maybe I was just looking for more witchcraft? I don’t know, but I still think it’s powerful, and beautiful, and a wonderful addition to this collection. And I’ll always be here for girls unapologetically loving themselves and their culture.
➽ 11. The Well Witch by Kate Hart – ★★
“But men were the most unpredictable animals, and those that found Elsa’s oasis were usually lost both in geography and life…”
Okay, so I was completely enthralled and totally captivated by this story. It is set in 1875 Texas, and stars a girl who lives all by herself in a very harsh desert environment. Her mother is dead, and her father has been away for three years, so she has lived by herself for quite some time. That is, until three men show up looking for shelter. Again, I really enjoyed the first half of this, and was so excited to see where it would go. Sadly, I hated where it went. I completely hated this ending, and the events that took place leading up to it. TW: racism and animal cruelty and death.
➽ 12. Beware of Girls with Crooked Mouths by Jessica Spotswood – ★★★★★
“But she would trade it all to be able to remember her little sister’s smile.”
This was such a good story! Completely different than anything else in this collection, and I loved it. This is a story about three sisters who are forced to live their life devoted to a prophecy that happens every generation. Jo has an affinity with prophecies, Elle has a specialty for poison, and Georgie has a way with fire. Yet, the first thing we see in this tale is a prophecy for the future that Jo sees, and soon becomes obsessed with making it a reality. This totally does have Three Dark Crowns vibes, because only one of these girls are meant to live. Yet, this is truly a story about sisterhood, and how the choices we make will always be something we are held accountable for. And this ending gutted me. Seriously, please give me this full-length novel. I’m not above begging.
➽ 13. Love Spell by Anna-Marie McLemore – ★★★★★
“I said my prayers to God, who I believed still wanted me, even if the men who took up his name on Earth never would.”
Everyone, I’m crying while writing my mini-review for this one. Perfection. A masterpiece. Something worth more than all the stars. This is one of the most beautiful and powerful short stories I’ve ever read. Ever. In all my life. I’m going to preorder this collection just for this story alone. Nothing I’m going to say is going to do this story justice, but this is a tale about a bruja who comes to live with her tía, because they both share the magic of curing other people’s heartbreak. This is ownvoices Latinx fiction, that stars a boy who has devoted his life to God and the Catholic church, and a girl who the town thinks is a witch that doesn’t even deserve communion. And I promise you, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Also, the boy is trans and it just made the story even more perfect. This is about community, and prejudices, and family, and knowing your worth, and knowing when love is worth it.
➽ 14. The Gherin Girls by Emery Lord – ★★★★★
“She’ll tell her daughters someday: If you don’t feel safe enough to yell back, you’re not safe enough. My babies, that is not love.”
This was so powerful and so empowering. This is a such an amazing portrayal of sisterhood and unconditional love, and it stars three girls with very unique and different powers, but this is a story about abuse. TW: talk of abuse, but nothing too detailed or graphic. But this wonderfully lays out the cycle of abuse, and how easy it is to not realize you are in an abusive relationship. It talks about how your abuser will always want to isolate you, will make up excuses, will blame you, will gaslight you, and how they will slowly and seamlessly weave this into something that feels normal. This is an important short story, and I now want to buy everything Emery Lord has ever created. Also, there is a super cute F/F romance in here. And extra also, one of the three sisters are stated to be a lesbian, but I think it’s pretty implied that another sister is pan, but she should be bi, and that’s awesome too! This was amazing, and important, and easily worth more than five stars.
➽ The Only Way Back by Tristina Wright – N/A
Okay, so this story will not be in the finished copy of this book in light of the sexual assault allegations against the author. You will only see this story in the printed ARC version. (Thank you so much to the editors, Harlequin, and anyone else that had a hand in this and by proving that they are listening and want to take steps to change the industry and make it a safer place.)
➽ 15. Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May – ★★★★★
“Here’s how to fulfill a prophecy: you are a woman, you speak the truth, and the world makes you into a liar.”
I finished this one weeping and sobbing. I immediately reread it, aloud, to a loved one. Immediately. It was that important to me. And the second time around, I was still crying. Ugly crying. Truthful crying. I cried for every woman out there, whose voice has been silenced. Whose voice will continue to be silenced until things change. This is about a girl who is sent to work in a forest, lumber, labor camp, because of her sinful ways. There, she is one of thirteen girls, all from different walks of life, but all of them have sinned for just being a woman, therefore a witch. This is about found family, and sisterhood, and reclaiming your identity, and gaining a voice. This was so beautifully structured, and so beautifully written. And it has such great representation, from different races, to a beautiful F/F story, to a trans character, this was just exceptionally crafted. This story should be required reading. I don’t see how anyone who reads this anthology’s life isn’t going to be changed just from reading this short story. And the editors were genius for making it the closing story. This short story is probably the best thing I’ve read all year. I am in awe, I am speechless, but I’m begging you to read this short story. This was feministic perfection. TW: implied rape, but nothing too graphic or visual. This story meant so much to me, and impacted me so profoundly, I’m going to find a way to incorporate it in my best reads of 2018 come December.
I gave Toil & Trouble four stars overall, because out of a possible 75 stars (5 stars possible for each of the 15 stories) this collection accumulated 59 stars (~78%). But honestly? This feels like it deserves a higher percentage. This was amazing, and I completely recommend it. And I don’t say this lightly: Elizabeth May’s story honestly changed my life. It’s maybe the best short story I’ve ever read. Please pick this up come August!
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The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.