Sasha Peyton Smith sets her debut historical fantasy novel in early 1900s New York City. In The Witch Haven, chaos ensues as sisterhood, magic, romance, and vengeance collide at Haxahaven Academy, a secret school for witches disguised as a sanitarium.
Seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell is left to her own devices in the aftermath of her brother’s death. With her mother locked up in an asylum, Frances struggles to make her living as a seamstress while attempting to uncover the mysterious circumstances of her brother William’s death. When her day takes a dark turn and she is attacked, Frances finds her employer dead at her feet, her sewing scissors in his neck, and no explanation as to what happened.
Suddenly becoming a prime suspect in a murder investigation leaves Frances with few options at her disposal. That is, until she finds out about her magical powers and is swept away to a school of girls with similar abilities—Haxahaven Academy. But everything is not as it seems at Haxahaven, and as the clairvoyant witches foresee, something dark is brewing beneath the surface.
The Witch Haven starts with a strong premise that doesn’t pay off
The opening scenes are impactful and immediately draw readers into the story, eager to follow a fast-paced magical adventure. The writing was also enjoyable (for the most part), with several memorable lines. However, after the first hundred or so pages, the story quickly loses steam. The pacing becomes more slowed, but the worldbuilding still feels incomplete, and the characters don’t feel fully developed. While the writing in terms of description and quotable lines is beautifully done, the dialogue is not as natural.
Certain aspects of the book, like the romance or some of the humor, seem more forced and match up to popular fantasy tropes rather than adding much to the story itself. While the book starts off strongly then slows down for most of it before speeding up again in the last quarter, the character development and worldbuilding were not as fleshed out through the slower-paced portion of the book. As a whole, the book poses an intriguing concept in terms of setting a magical school in a historical NYC setting. However, the delivery fell flat.
Riddled with predictable clichés
The book instead feels more tailored to beginner fantasy readers. For seasoned speculative fiction fans, much of the plot is predictable, and the way the setting is incorporated doesn’t bring anything new to the magic school premise.
Additionally, Frances doesn’t seem to undergo any real character development in the book. As a whole, some of the characters’ motivations weren’t completely understandable because most of them were difficult to connect to.
Overall, the premise of the book is promising. Unfortunately, The Witch Haven falls prey to popular fantasy cliché tropes rather than living up to its more unique premise. If you are looking to get started in fantasy and enjoy historical fiction, then The Witch Haven may be an enjoyable read for you. But if you are a fantasy regular, then this may be too familiar a story to be fully immersed in its plot twists.
The Witch Haven was released on August 31, 2021.