Saturday, December 2, 2023

THE WITCHES AT THE END OF THE WORLD, supernatural novel set in wintry, beautiful Norway


Sourcebooks Landmark
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Rage burns brighter than any spellfire...Deep in the birchwoods of Norway, magic courses through the veins of two sisters. For years they've been alone, but sweet-tempered Kaija is tired of living in shadows and longs for a life filled with community, even if it means stifling her magic. But Minna is a witch through and through, with wrath always simmering just below the surface.

Different as they may be, both will never forget the day they were driven from their village. The day their mother burned. When Kaija leaves to pursue a new life, Minna is left alone in the darkness of the forest.

Devastated and outraged at the betrayal, Minna casts a curse to punish those who took everything from her. What she doesn't realize is that this act will incite a deadly chain of events. Soon it will destroy everything, including the life Kaija has lovingly built. But once a witch's rage boils, regret means nothing—she can't take back what's already done.

Someone will have to burn.


My Review
: The nicest surprise of Deathtober's reading. I hadn't read anything by Author Iversen before this, and was expecting a more horror-tinged read...what I got was a revenge story, featuring sisters whose lives were upended by small-minded christian hatemongers. There is definitely a supernatural element to the story. It isn't, however, the kind of all-in horror that ends up with your psyche splattered in gore.

A big part of the reason for that is this is a story that unspools slowly, and in a very interior way. It is almost a récit à deux, a double recit, though such a beast doesn't exist (that I know of). Minna is angry, bitter, and filled with the inexhaustable fuel of contempt for those not as smart as she is. Kaija, on the other hand, is genuinely kind if extremely Other by virtue of who she is and whom she knows best. She is the sister whose path is always set by her desire to see, and be, the best it's possible to, in herself and others. Her decision to return to their home village where their mother was burned alive as a witch causes Minna to react violently She casts a curse on the whole village. Her rage can never be extinguished, but can be thrust outward to burn others.

The reason the book appealed to me is probably the reason some found it frustrating. I liked the slower pace that the author chose, as it left more time for me to get to feel the sisters' differences of character. The third-person narration, told in short chapters alternating between the sisters, was spangled with lovely sentences that use Norwegian terms, that unfold into images of the birch woods and the village, in three mental dimensions. Shadows and light are lovely almost characters.

The Norse "pagan" craft is wonderfully used, with figures from the Norse mythos making their presences known without coming across as intrusions into Reality by pagan gods...they feel like characters whose names we happen to know. The worldbuilding is thus made that much more enjoyable for a twenty-first century atheist. The way that Kaija, the elder sister, yearns for life in the village as a christian wife and a mother did not sit well with me...selling herself short and out to be average, when she could be a Power? Not the kind of message I'd choose to send. But Minna's rageful reponse to her sister's absconding, while understandable, skates perilously close to Evil. The author was very wise to be sure we know that Minna's curse is not the cause of Kaija's different life challenges. That made what could've been unpleasant horror into not-entirely-pleasant, deeply thought through, supernatural fiction.

Set at the crossroads where Norway had to choose between its old, established supernatural beliefs and the newfangled ways of the christian church in a lasting, final way, this story of sisters whose choices define the stakes, and the costs, of each course is one I think is ideal for anyone on your Yule list who loves immersive reads. Investing the time to be in this world with Kaija and Minna is easiest to make happen now that the nights are long and the winds are cold. It was a pleasure to meet Author Iversen. I would commend Minna, and Kaija (though less so), to your long nights of deep reading.

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