Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For
by Sara Pascoe
Trindles and Green Ltd

"That would be one of the regrets of her short life, never getting one of those kebabs."

There is much to explore and admire within the pages of Pascoe’s magical, award-winning tale, but divulging every detail would spoil the fun of reading it. The basis of the story is a girl named Rachel Hollingsworth, or Raya, who discovers she is a witch. The young protagonist is a wise-beyond-her-years, fourteen-year-old girl who favors the goth look of black spiky hair and body piercings. Underneath that tough exterior, hidden behind the self-confident attitude, exists a vulnerable girl. Her father is dead, and her mother is afflicted with a “bad case of schizophrenia,” leaving Raya in the foster care system with a woman named Angie. Life in the foster home isn’t bad, and she reluctantly strikes up a friendship with twelve-year-old Jake. Still, Raya is determined to run away and live on her own with her new boyfriend, Tony. Their plan isn’t perfect, but Raya needs to do this while she still has her sanity. But just when she finds Tony she witnesses his irrevocable decision that sends Raya reeling and running away solo to London.

At this point, Raya is unaware that she is a witch, yet she knows she is different with abilities to see vision and colors. Without fully understanding them, the images seem to be flashes of intuition or warning. Raya’s worry is she is exhibiting traits of her mother’s schizophrenia, begrudgingly accepting her fate of living in her “own personal horror movie” one day. In London, Raya assumes the name of Beatrice and meets Pavel, who sees and shares her special abilities. Pavel’s friends provide shelter and work at their new cafe, giving Raya some stability and a sense of purpose. Pavel helps Raya harness and improve her “natural witching abilities.” Meanwhile, social worker Bryony Braxton tracks Raya down and implores her help in finding Jake who has gone missing. Bryony just so happens to be a witch too, which is integral for Raya later on in the course of the novel. When they do find Jake in critical condition at a hospital, a bewildered Raya accidentally transports herself through “mistaken time travel” to 1645 England. If one knows their history, 1645 is the time of the Essex Witch Trials, a notorious period in British history that witnessed the execution of 200 suspected witches.

It is here that Pascoe’s novel gains speed as Raya, mistaken for a boy, is put to work in a stable where she meets none other than Matthew Hopkins, the infamous self-professed Witchfinder General. Raya is soon in serious trouble with Hopkins and waits helplessly for Bryony. Along for the wild ride with Raya is the equally sarcastic cat, Oscar, a would-be-vegetarian who’s too lazy to hunt for food and sounds “a bit like De Niro.” Oscar is what is called a “familiar” and helps Raya (since everyone knows that all witches need a cat). His character’s effortless derision also lessens the darker moments of the story. One may recall Salem, the sarcastic cat of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch when meeting Oscar. And when all seems hopeless, Raya jumps to seventeenth-century Istanbul, where she finds more adventure, happiness, and danger in her journey home.

Though the author's story of a teen discovering her special powers is not a new concept, Pascoe's is more unique because of her distinctive authorial voice. Her novel is a 2017 Mill City Press Fantasy Author Award winner that boasts beautiful cover art, stylish chapter titles, colorful characters, plentiful action, suspense, and an equal measure of humor. She is particularly skillful at creating atmosphere and instilling imagery, with descriptions emanating from the page like “Dracula shadows dance on the walls.” Her intimacy with details of historical England and the Middle East demonstrate her understanding and accuracy of time and place.

While Pascoe fills the novel with an array of both amusing (especially Oscar) and dark supporting characters, the story belongs to Raya, who is a cross between Harry Potter and Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She is equal parts strong and insecure, and her awakening is perhaps the most humanizing part of Pascoe’s tale. The narrative is predominately Raya’s inner thoughts and emotions where Pascoe comfortably assumes the voice of the young teen, full of hurt and angst. It is through the exhilarating and life-changing experience of time travel that Raya learns to fully appreciate what little she does have in this world. Pascoe develops Raya’s character arc nicely, and one can discern her fondness for the central character. Pascoe admittedly has experience with children in foster care and mentions this when referencing the inspiration behind the novel, another benefit for her in crafting this story.

The last third of the novel where Raya is in Istanbul seems almost to be another novel itself and could even work as a standalone adventure. Raya’s imprisonment during the witch trials period is harrowing but considerably toned down for Pascoe’s core audience. Yet, one is left wanting to read more about what happens in this period because Pascoe so successfully transports the reader there with Raya. The details of magic existing in the world and seemingly known by others are unclear and left to interpretation, but readers of other forms of modern literature such as urban fantasy may recognize a similar tendency in approach. At the novel’s climax, there are still some unresolved issues and perhaps this is intentional on Pascoe’s part, leaving it open to future books with Raya. Overall, the novel is a marvelous read and should appeal to all ages.

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