Review—These Witches Don’t Burn (These Witches Don’t Burn #1) by Isabel Sterling

[Goodreads Link]
Published by Penguin Random House / Razorbill Imprint


Content Warnings:
Genre-typical descriptions of blood and injuries, Spoiler: [death of a parent], manipulative ex, fire, car crash, teenage drinking, casual homophobia.

The Good
– Casual, readable writing style
– Fun
– Hits all the right notes / lots of emotional highs and lows
– Mostly likeable (or love-to-hate!) cast
– Positive lesbian, bisexual and trans rep
– Everything comes together at the end

The Bad
– Super white cast
– Weak beginning
– “Reg”, the term for non-witches, is kind of stupid

I read These Witches Don’t Burn in one sitting. Literally sat down, read the book, then got up. It’s both engaging and readable, and it’s easy to get lost in the flow once you get past the beginning.

Hannah’s a witch from an elemental clan. Last month, she and her (now ex-)girlfriend had a run in with a dangerous blood witch. They escaped unharmed, but the experience opened Hannah’s eyes to Veronica’s selfishness. She’s trying to move on from both the experience and Veronica, but a bloody sacrifice in the woods signals something dark and dangerous encroaching on Salem.

The beginning is easy to overlook once you’re past it, but annoying while you’re in it. These Witches Don’t Burn opens on Hannah at her job, juggling the appearance of her ex-girlfriend and a sketchy customer buying sketchy ingredients for a sketchy spell. She thinks about how “Regs”the terrible term for regular, non-witch folksdon’t understand the power real witches are capable of and engages in vague arguments with her ex-girlfriend. Although succeeding in introducing important elements, the overall tone and vagueness are grating. The best way to draw people in isn’t by leaving out the obvious parts, but by making them curious about the details.

Fortunately, from there on out, the book dives into the main plot. Hannah is likeable, but not perfect, and she’s always doing something to drive the plot forward or incite the reader’s interest. Isabel Sterling plots a solid course of high octane moments, rocky conversations with Hannah’s ex and emotional gut punches set against engaging steps in Hannah’s investigation and soft lulls with the new girl she’s seeing. She hits all the right emotional beats at the right moments and my other complaint doesn’t come in until the very end: Hannah doesn’t have a hand in her own [escape.] Oh, she tries, but it doesn’t happen because of her own ability, but rather the convenient timing of her community.

In terms of setting, there is a weakness in the overall setting in that it doesn’t really feel deeply Salem-y, so to speak. If the name of the town wasn’t mentioned, I wouldn’t know where it took placethere’s a very generic aura to it. But Sterling descriped and conveyed indivudal scenes well.

Hannah is a suitable protagonist. She grows and makes sacrifices along her journey. Her character growth is in a more mature, darker direction: she’s suffered and she’s more focused and driven by the end of the book. Other notable characters include Morgan, the sweet new girl that Hannah’s dating and her ex, Veronica. Morgan is likeable and comes with her own set of complications. Veronica is the perfect love-to-hate-her ex Hannah keeps winding up in situations with. She’s manipulative and selfish, but still feels like a real teenager who hasn’t realized some important things yet, and not a caricature. Sterling also pulls off a good villain: the villain is fitting symbolically, sympathetic but not enough to forgive them and makes sense in the end.

Writing Style—★★☆☆☆
Sterling’s writing style is readable, straightforward and effective. I took minorissue mostly with some extraneous that‘s, but it lacks an element of sophistication. Not to say it’s amateurish or rawrather, that it’s clear this is aimed at the younger end of YA readers, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Themes and Representation—★★★★☆
The LGBT+ representation in this book made me super happy. Lesbian, bisexual and trans characters who name what they are, where it’s not the entirety of their identity and where the author fits it in naturally? Do you know how rarely authors fit it in naturally? Yeehaw. There’s also lots about dealing with your awful ex and the conflicting feelings of loneliness and knowing reuniting wouldn’t be great. There’s also an element of casual homophobiathe change in how Hannah’s best friend’s parents treated herhandled with grace. It’s a nice balance between acknowledging homophobia while still keeping a relatively positive and hopeful tone to the book.

But… holy shit, I think all the characters were white. If there was a character of colour, they weren’t mentioned or described aptly.

Recommended For…
If you want a lighter read, I definitely recommend These Witches Don’t Burn. It’s an easy read and a welcome distraction from darker tomes. But if you’re the sort who thrives on the dark and gritty and mature, you won’t find much to your liking here.


Genres: Young Adult, LGBT+, Fantasy, Contemporary 

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