Today, I’m reviewing How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy. This is a book that brings you on an emotionally rich and nuanced journey.
This review originally appeared on The Nerd Daily.
Magically brilliant, academically perfect, chronically overcommitted…
Shay Johnson has all the makings of a successful witch. Now that she’s a junior at T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School, she’s one step closerto winning the full-ride Brockton Scholarship–her ticket into the university of her dreams. Her main competition? Ana freaking Álvarez. The key to victory? Impressing Mr. B, drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee.
When Mr. B persuades Shay to star in this year’s aggressively inclusive, racially diverse musical—at their not-quite-diverse school–she agrees, wearily, even though she’ll have to put up with Ana playing the other lead. But with rehearsals underway, Shay realizes Ana is…not the despicable witch she’d thought. Perhaps she could even be a friend–or more. And Shay could use someone in her corner once she finds herself on the receiving end of Mr. B’s unpleasant and unwanted attention. When Shay learns she’s not the first witch to experience his inappropriate behavior, she must decide if she’ll come forward. But how can she speak out when the scholarship–and her future–are on the line?
An unforgettable debut, How to Succeed in Witchcraft conjures up searing social commentary, delightfully awkward high school theater, and magical proclamations of love.
Publication Date: 27th September
TW: homophobia, racism, grooming, emotional manipulation, sexual assault, manipulation, classism, gaslighting
On one hand, this is a book sparkling with hope and a deep love of musical theatre. On the other hand, this is an often intense read delving into abuse and manipulation.
Our protagonist Shay was definitely a highlight for me. Her dedication and desperation to succeed drives a lot of her behaviour, encouraging that academic rivalry and passion in a way I always love. Seeing a character unapologetically love their skills is amazing to see. I also loved her character progression over the course of the book, finding moments where she was not perfect. However, this drive also undermines her at times, complicating the situation with the gross abuse of power. That dynamic causes a huge dramatic tension for her and overwhelms her emotionally, bringing her to an extremely vulnerable point. Your heart just breaks for this fierce, brilliant character and Brophy deftly demonstrates the way this type of behaviour breaks down their victim-survivors. It is truly crushing.
This was an absolute firecracker of a book, delving into sensitive and nuanced topics as indicated in the trigger warnings. It is a heavy read at times, exploring the full emotional toll this takes on Shay. There are so many layers of manipulation and expectations to unpack, highlighting real life issues. Brophy does not shy away from these intense and saddening moments. Their ugliness and seedy nature is on full display, highlighting how disgusting this abuse of power is. I also really appreciated how they showed the subtle growth of these behaviours and their insidious ability to distort your mind. Gaslighting and manipulation are hallmarks of this grooming and predatory behaviour, making you feel unable to trust anyone around you – even doubting your own thoughts. Brophy emphasises these behaviours, providing useful hallmarks for recognising these in real life. Your stomach just drops at the sinking realisation of what is truly going on and sadly, these are all too real moments. I loved the overall narrative though and how it stayed in those murky complexities of a situation like this. It is not easily resolved and even pulling that charming mask off to reveal the villainy does not always convince everyone.
At the same time, this is a book characterised by sparks of joy and light. I was drawn to this book partially with that love of the theatre and musicals. There is an abundance of that here, with plenty of dance rehearsals and acting moments. The escapism and pure happiness you can derive from performance is wonderful to see, though it is mired by other factors sometimes. Also there is an absolutely gorgeous and hopeful romance blossoming, with a sapphic witches rivals to lovers arc. This relationship was brilliant to witness, with chemistry sizzling and dialogue popping in all the right places. You just recognise and love that dynamic, watching it cultivate over the pages. It brings warmth and a sense of hope in a book unafraid to step firmly into the shadows. That emotional balance reinforces the abhorrent nature of the contrasting behaviours. The queer joy embodied by this relationship also emphasises the way the abuse of power impacts heaviest on those from intersecting marginalised backgrounds. It is an all too familiar narrative sadly. Finally, I also really enjoyed the magic system here. It was creative and innovative, providing a slight spin on our world to take it into the realm of the fantastical.
How to Succeed in Witchcraft is a layered and important story, combining moments of joy and light with a heavy but necessary depiction of the abuse of power and grooming.
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