Sasha Peyton Smith’s debut novel, The Witch Haven, is almost here! Set in 1911, the book follows 17-year-old Frances Hallowell. She works as a seamstress, her thoughts preoccupied with mourning the death of her brother, William. When Frances is attacked, a man winds up dead, and she can’t explain how. Soon after, two mysterious women find her. They bring her to Haxahaven Academy, a school for witches. While there, Frances learns more about the power within her. Soon, she begins to unravel the mystery surrounding William’s death while facing a few sinister people of her own. This is the first book in a duology.
Early on, Smith establishes the dual mystery. Readers initially learn about the death of Frances’ brother. Smith entices readers to continue, hinting at a fate both tragic and grotesquely intriguing. The second mystery is that of Haxahaven. After Frances’ experiences, Haxahaven presents itself as a lovely school to attend. Though that may be the case in some respects, something feels off about the school. For much of the book, it’s an itch that sits at the back of readers’ minds. But Smith doesn’t let it go unscratched. She gradually brings the two mysteries together, leading to a shocking third act.
While Smith includes a solid balance of a plot-driven and character-driven story, her characters truly propel the book. First is Frances, the enthralling protagonist. From the first page to the last, readers gain a sense of her grief for her brother, along with her hunger to learn more about magic. She’s clever, curious, and powerful. Her arc is steady. Readers will find themselves instantly drawn to her. Frances also fits well with her two main friends, Lena and Maxine. The two are excellent complements for Frances. Both have distinct personalities that feel natural. Finally, the secondary and other characters create a wide variety.
One facet of the book I find particularly notable is the way Smith approaches women’s rights. Her examination fits within the historical setting of the book. She provides rounded viewpoints in multiple contexts. However, she places the primary emphasis on women claiming and protecting ownership of their bodies. This is especially prominent with Frances. She’s not timid; she doesn’t hesitate to protect herself. But this doesn’t pertain solely to her physical body. She also begins to hold that same ownership over her magic. No matter her level of understanding, she ensures that no one takes what’s rightfully hers.
The Witch Haven is a riveting debut. Smith is a skilled wordsmith. Her writing sings as her vivid style pops off the page. Each aspect is well thought out; Smith gives everything and everyone a clear purpose. She rushes nothing, creating a carefully deliberate slow burn. Historical fiction and fantasy readers alike will appreciate the world she constructs as she seamlessly weaves the two genres together. And though she wraps up the story, she sets the stage for what’s to come.
The Witch Haven releases on August 31. Pre-order your copy here.