Beach Reads Book Review 5: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling is a queer, YA contemporary fantasy set in your favorite American witch setting of Salem, Massachusetts. It has a powerful messages for those who read closely: Don’t blindly believe stereotypes. No one stereotype based in fear can help you understand the entirety of a group, or the nuances within the individuals that make that group up. Sometimes a bogey man is just a story invented to keep people in line, to stop them from questioning, and to keep the marginalized marginalized. But other than that big ole’ theme, the book is fun and fast to read!
It’s the summer before Hannah’s senior year of high school and all she wants to do is get over her ex and move on with her life. She’s supposed to be learning more about her Elemental Witch powers from her grandma and Coven Leader, Lady Ariana. Because when you’re a witch in America’s most notorious witch haven, any wrong move could out you and put an entire coven at risk.
But life isn’t being kind to Hannah. Between a mysterious sacrifice that ruins the vibe of a summer bonfire party, her ex (and fellow witch) Veronica trying to win her back in the most manipulative of ways, and fears of a dreaded Blood Witch in town to hunt them down, Hannah just can’t catch a break. On top of that, Victoria’s public use of magic got both of their powers bound, putting them in danger and making it hard for Hannah to protect herself from a mysterious figure trying to kill them both. That doesn’t leave much time for getting to know Morgan, the new girl in town, or to hang out with her bubbly best friend Gemma. If only she could find the Blood Witch and deal with him…before he kills them all.
Isabel Sterling does an amazing drawn concocting dramatic conflicts that keep this pace-y story twisting and turning throughout the entire book. She’s not afraid to torture her darlings with threats of death, untrustworthy friends, or the destruction of a Coven’s entire way of life. There are no small problems in These Witches Don’t Burn. Which is appreciated. Because while Hannah and Veronica both have powerful magic, that magic can’t save them from everything. In fact, the very thing that makes them powerful can actually doom them all if used at the wrong time or in front of the wrong person. This creates a ton of both internal and external tension in the book.
I also appreciated the way Sterling described Hannah’s Elemental Power. She didn’t just describe things moving around or making noise or exploding, but helped the reader understand how the power felt as it flowed through the protagonist. For example, when Hannah uses her magic to extricate herself from a whole in their ground where her grandma left of in punishment: "A slight tremor works through the earth, like the gentle ripple of a pond after a pebble’s been tossed in. The amount of magic in the clearing is heady. Intoxicating.”
Sterling also does a fantastic job keeping the reader guessing on who the ultimate villain of the story is. Is it the shadowy figure of a Blood Witch that Hannah ran into in NYC, an event that lead to Hannah and Veronica’s ultimate break-up? Or is it Nolan, soccer captain and possible maniacal killer determined to kill all witches? Or maybe Detective Archer, the new guy on the police force who has piercing eyes and seems to have it out for Hannah? This makes the story fun to read. Admit it, you love to hate jerky characters, right? It’s a good outlet for your own beefs with people in your real life.
The novel, like any novel, wasn’t perfect, though. There was a lot of exposition and inner flashbacks to the scene in New York with the mean Blood Witch that felt awkward and not needed. I suspect that the book originally started with this scene, and was eventually cut to get the to the meat of the plot faster. But with all these references to a scene we never read, it kept leaving me feeling like I’d accidentally started reading a series at Book 2.
Which leads me to my second critique, which is likely related to my suspicion that the book originally started before the end of the school year. While the book itself moves forward quickly and has a great pace, the beats of the story feel a bit off. They happen too soon (like with the Mirror Moment in which Hannah’s past and future collide), or aren’t very obvious (I’m still not sure what the final big choice was that leads to the ultimate conflict), leaving the reader feeling a bit ungrounded and like Hannah is just racing from catastrophe to catastrophe.
Overall, the combination of high stakes, love triangles galore, and witchy setting make These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling fun to read. Bonus points: it keeps you guessing to the very end.