Throughout history, female healers have been cast out, feared and labeled as witches, even though their work in herbalism and midwifery helped shape medicine as we know it today. In fiction, the witch—that wise, rebellious female character—can be even more disruptive, her healing gifts even more supernaturally powerful.
T. Kingfisher’s dark (but still extremely funny) fantasy novel is full of female characters who carve out power for themselves: protagonist Princess Marra, who cherishes the peace of her convent home; the Sister Apothecary at Marra’s convent; and two frighteningly powerful fairy godmothers. But the only witch of the bunch is the dust-wife, and folks, she is an icon. A necromancer who tends a graveyard, the dust-wife can talk to the dead, keeps a demon-possessed chicken as a familiar, and agrees to help kill Marra’s sister’s abusive husband even though she believes their quest will fail—because wicked men should be held accountable. Despite her ruthlessly realistic view of the world, the dust-wife values the optimism of other characters, even Marra’s fairy godmother, Agnes, a sweet older dear who gives only good health as a blessing and frets over baby chicks. The dust-wife and Agnes bicker their way to becoming ride-or-die besties, and I would read an entire series about their adventures.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
If you look up charming in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll find the entry illustrated with a portrait of the titular hero of Phoebe Wahl’s delightful picture book, Little Witch Hazel. In four short tales—one for each season of the year—Wahl captures the close-knit forest community to which Little Witch Hazel belongs. In “The Blizzard,” we see Little Witch Hazel make her rounds, visiting a chipmunk with a toothache, a mole with an injured paw and Mrs. Rabbit and her four new kits. Wahl also conveys how the residents of Mosswood Forest care for Little Witch Hazel: Her friends Wendell and Nadine encourage her to take a much-needed break from her errands on an idyllic summer day, and later in the year, Otis the owl rescues her from a fierce snowstorm. With a classical tone, Wahl offers a still-revolutionary portrayal of a female healer and the difference she makes in her community.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders fictionalizes the true story of a small English village that was nearly overcome by the bubonic plague in 1665. When the local rector convinces the town to close their gate to prevent the plague’s spread, young widow Anna Frith finds herself quarantined with a few hundred of her neighbors, watching their numbers dwindle over the course of an extraordinary year. Among those neighbors are Mem and Anys Gowdie, an aunt and niece whose extensive knowledge of herblore gets them accused of, then executed for, witchcraft. When Anna visits the Gowdies’ abandoned house shortly after, she realizes that all of their dried herbs and foraged weeds, their tinctures and potions—the very things that had gotten them killed—are what had kept the pair from catching the Black Death before their violent ends. As Anna learns the Gowdies’ trade and brings their healing knowledge to the rest of the town, the novel becomes a moving portrait of women’s community-centered heroism in the face of unjust persecution.
—Christy, Associate Editor
Tenured professor Diana Bishop is a brilliant woman—a formidable entity in her own right—but she is also a witch with impressive magical powers. The hero of Deborah Harkness’ bestselling All Souls trilogy turned away from the magical community after her parents’ untimely death, swearing off her family legacy and instead creating a name for herself in academia. But her worlds crash together when she discovers a long-lost enchanted manuscript, which awakens an enormous power within her. Diana is the first person to have seen the manuscript in 150 years, and suddenly the whole magical community is after her. A centuries-old vampire named Matthew Clairmont becomes her protector as she navigates a dangerous world that she had purposely avoided for most of her life. Hunted for her power and knowledge, Diana realizes that she can no longer hide from her destiny. She must embrace her power, her magical legacy and herself—her whole self.
—Meagan, Brand & Production Designer
Human interdependence is at the heart of Leni Zumas’ 2018 novel, which shifts among the stories of four adult women and one girl, all living in a small Oregon fishing town. But this is no gentle sisterhood novel, as Red Clocks finds female characters pitted against one another in an America where reproductive freedoms have been severely limited and single-parent adoption is outlawed. Gin Percival, a reclusive healer who’s feared as a witch by superstitious fishermen, lives firmly outside the expectations placed on women: She’s messy and smells like onions, prefers animals over people and is “uninterested in being pleasing to other persons.” She also provides herbal remedies and menstrual care for the women who visit her, which means she’s operating outside the law. Through Gin’s story, which culminates in her arrest and subsequent trial, Zumas draws a connection between the 17th-century practice of blaming women for any misfortune and our contemporary society’s concern with women who buck social norms and don’t care one bit what you think about it.
—Cat, Deputy Editor