Title: Born Wicked
Author: Jessica Spotswood
Length: 330 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
In this alternate universe, late nineteenth-century New England exists as its own political entity run by a puritanical patriarchy called the Brotherhood. Cate Cahill, sixteen, has grown up being taught that she is inherently wicked–and not only because she and her younger sisters are all witches. More than a hundred years before Cate’s time, New England was a bastion of magic, religious freedom, and female power, but now the Brothers keep close tabs on girls’ behavior. Any girl who steps out of line can expect either to be sent to an insane asylum or a prison ship, and at seventeen, every girl must declare her intentions: to marry or to join a religious order called the Sisterhood. As Cate’s seventeenth birthday rapidly approaches, she becomes increasingly anxious to protect her vulnerable younger sisters even as she learns yet more dangerous secrets that further complicate her already-limited choices.
Born Wicked is a historical witchcraft tale set in New England that, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with Salem–how delightful! I’ve passed this book up in the library I don’t know how many times: picked it up, read the blurb, and decided I wasn’t interested. Look how wrong you can be.
This book reminded me of the Gemma Doyle trilogy in all the best ways. I’m well aware that it has some glaring flaws. The alternate history business is rather unbelievable and convoluted; Spotswood basically squanders her potentially atmospheric setting (if I hadn’t spent almost half a year living in roughly the same area, the setting would’ve been meaningless and unremarkable to me tbh); and the love triangle is more distressing than dramatic, pretty lose-lose for both Cate and the love interests either way (though I guess I actually cared about all three characters involved?). And there are of course some cliche plot elements here and there.
Nevertheless, I loved it.
This is a character-driven story, to be sure, but that worked for me because the author crafted some wonderfully sympathetic and multi-dimensional characters. The narrator Cate begins the novel as a stubborn and overprotective surrogate mother. She’s quite self-conscious, but also judgmental towards other young women. As Cate moves towards accepting herself and her own abilities, though, she also realizes that other girls may be struggling–and fighting–in their own ways. She learns, changes, and grows up. I also loved that Cate is portrayed as intelligent but that her passion is gardening (rather than the author making her a stereotypical-for-YA bookworm) and that she enjoys climbing trees and going barefoot but is not a straight-up tomboy. Both of her other sisters felt very real as well. I would’ve liked to see more of some of the other characters, especially Sachi, daughter of the evil Brother Ishida, and both of Cate’s love interests…but hopefully they’ll reappear in the next book! Characters that would be painted with a broad Good/Bad brush in other books are more nuanced than I expected in this one, which was a pleasant surprise. I was particularly relieved that the “mean girl” character(s) did not, in fact, turn out to be mean girls at all.
Character relationships are done well, too. You can see the love and concern Cate has for her sisters. There’s mercifully no (or not much) instalove, and though the main love story develops quickly, it at least feels organic. Cate doesn’t have many female friends, but Spotswood makes female characters–Cate included–come together and work together where in another book they might be backstabbing enemies. Though I’m not really the “girl power” type, I was feeling it in this novel!
Other than the lackluster setting–which I mentioned before–the only other thing that struck me as a bit lacking was, well, the actual magic. That could be because Cate is so wary of it, though, and I’m keeping my hopes up for more development in both the fantasy and the world-building in book two. This one drops some fascinating hints about this universe’s not-so-distant past and offers some compelling nuggets of backstory, but it left me wanting more. I thought that Spotswood’s intentional incorporation of greater diversity than existed in actual Victorian New England was a nice touch, too.
I nearly cried at the end of Born Wicked, which I always take as a sign that the author succeeded in crafting good characters to whom I’ve grown attached. That’s the case here, for sure, and I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel (Star Cursed). This series might not be as grand or far-reaching as the Gemma Doyle books, but so far it has promise and has been very engaging and entertaining.