Book Review: These Witches Don’t Burn, by Isabel Sterling
By Silas | 12/11/19
Holy queer witches. I was stoked for this book when I heard all the hype surrounding it. Sapphic witches? Uh, yes, please. And, look at that cover.
Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.
But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.
While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.
Told in first person present tense, Hannah throws the reader right into her world within the first few paragraphs. At first, her biggest battle of the summer seems to be avoiding her ex-girlfriend, but evidence of dark magic unfolds around her and she’s swiftly realizing something sinister is happening in Salem. After attending a high school bonfire to ring in the summer, Hannah and her friends stumble upon the remains of a forbidden ritual.
Is it a blood witch?
A Reg (magicless human)?
Or, is it something else entirely?
This book begins with average drama one might expect from a book about high schoolers, but that teenage angst is quickly shed when Hannah and her friends have to piece together who is responsible for the dark happenings in Salem.
Sterling’s take on witches was an unexpectedly fresh approach that I didn’t know I needed. Hannah is an Elemental—she controls the elements; earth, water, fire, and air. The rest of her coven, including her parents and ex-girlfriend, are also Elementals. Along with this category of witches, there are also Caster Witches and the feared Blood Witches. Wicca is also mentioned as a lesser form of magic, not nearly as powerful as the above but Hannah describes it as having power nonetheless, which was pretty cool because other books I’ve read looked down on Wicca/considered it fake.
The diversity of the characters was phenomenal. Hannah is a lesbian, her ex-girlfriend, Veronica, is queer (it isn’t explicitly stated how she identifies), the love interest, Morgan, is bisexual, and another side character is a transgender man who dates men. There’s even an adult sapphic couple in Hannah’s coven that is expecting their first child together through a donor. The characters navigate through the book without much incident, their queerness being a nonissue aside from Hannah’s best friend, Gemma’s parents’ mistreatment of Hannah, which is addressed later in the book.
There’s also a point in the book that Hannah acknowledges other genders. A friend mentions the baddie as a ‘he’ and Hannah states, albeit in her head, that, “the culprit could also be a girl. Or someone who isn’t either of those genders.” And, as a card-carrying non-binary, I have to say we can also be baddies too, you know. (Just kidding. We don’t have cards…yet.)
I found it refreshing that Hannah and her friends acknowledged how toxic her relationship with Veronica was no matter how long they’d known each other and how seemingly perfect of a match they were. And Veronica? I disliked her immensely but in a good way. She wasn’t quite an antagonist, but wasn’t kind to Hannah, and had her own difficulties, though the storyline alluded to a reason for this that left me wanting to know a whole hell of a lot more about her. Throughout the book, Hannah refers to the incident that lead her to break-up with Veronica in the first place while they were on a trip to New York City. Information about it was lightly sprinkled here and there but I still felt as if we didn’t get a good picture of what actually transpired.
The Who-Dun-It was well done. I would’ve expected a bigger reveal with far more intrigue from an adult novel, but Sterling served readers with enough hints to give us an idea of the potentials for the baddie without giving it away.
I held a lot of expectations when I dove into this book and was slightly disappointed in the world-building. The first part of the book began slow and didn’t quite pick up until a third of the way through, and then the latter half was slammed with action. The setting itself lacked the ethereal atmosphere one would expect from a book about witches set in Salem, Massachusetts. The descriptions of the setting didn’t quite feel tethered to the magic and history of the location for my liking.
I would’ve loved to see more of Hannah and Morgan together as it was a bit of insta-love, though not unusual given the circumstances of the plot. Their romance was seemingly lost in the hunt for the ‘Blood Witch’/baddie, though it was a pleasant break from the fear Hannah had for herself and her coven, and the drama with Veronica.
It took me a bit to embrace the writing because, as it’s told in first present and Hannah comes off as a bit conceited and overdramatic, I had trouble connecting with her.
And, a jarring issue I had toward the end that just didn’t work:
Scroll through to “End Spoiler Alert” if you’d like to avoid spoilers.
I had a problem with a specific scene later in the book prior to the climax. Hannah’s father is attacked by the baddie and is on a ventilator due to the injuries sustained. He speaks to Hannah, not through magic or writing but verbally, which isn’t possible in this state. If someone is intubated/on a ventilator, an endotracheal tube will prevent the individual from speaking verbally. If they try, it’ll be all kinds of distorted and garbled, so I’m not quite sure this was portrayed realistically.
[END SPOILER ALERT]
The diverse cast of characters made my queer heart so happy, though I had a mighty need for some depth that just wasn’t there. Like we were only scratching the surface of this world, I longed to see more resolution between Hannah and her ex-girlfriend, to witness the consequences of the events preceding the climax (emotional and otherwise) and to feel more from the setting itself. For a book about witches set in Salem, no less, I expected a level of spectral sentience from the setting that just wasn’t there.
Regardless of the issues I had, I enjoyed the book and I’ll pick up the sequel for sure. I’d love to see more of Hannah and Morgan’s budding relationship amid the dangers the characters are undoubtedly facing in the next book.
3 out of 5 stars
Recommended reader: This is a young adult novel but does have a few heavy topics that warrant content warnings: death of a parent, violence, car crash into a lake, homophobia, blood for rituals, death threats, animal death, burning at the stake.