WITCHES OF ASH AND RUIN is a book that twists you. It takes unexpected turns, it revels in the richness of magic, and it’s unafraid to be dark. Sometimes very, very dark.
Written by E. Latimer and out for release from Disney Hyperion on March 3, WITCHES OF ASH AND RUIN follows seventeen-year-old Dayna and her struggles to fit in and survive in her small Irish town. Dayna is bisexual, recently outed, coping with her OCD and the return of her long-absent mother, and, most notably, a witch. And as Dayna comes closer to ascending into her magic, her coven grapples with the shocking and gruesome murder of a local witch at the hands of a notorious witch hunter. Soon, Dayna and her friends are on the hunt for a killer and find themselves uncovering complicated secrets.
A quick, slashing plot paired with a bisexual main character and realistic mental health portrayal checks almost all of my boxes. Irish magical girlfriends? Serial killers? A weapon that has its own name? Creepy Catholicism? Irish gods? Sign me the heck up.
Ultimately, it’s unfortunate—almost miraculous—that the author managed to stumble so beautifully into such a perfect combination of problems so uniquely designed to turn me off, but my issues with this book are threefold: it has a cluttered narrative, it relies on the weakest execution of f/f tropes, and it shows absolutely no cultural or regional research.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t be so harsh on the romance subplot if I hadn’t read six other f/f books this year that follow the exact same path of quasi-enemies to lovers, wherein the characters are not enemies. Dayna and her love interest, Meiner, get off to a rocky start in a contrived, dramatic, and frankly embarrassing encounter over who gets to buy the last bag of tea from a store, and it doesn’t get much better from there. Meiner—who is an interesting character on her own, unlike Dayna, who is rather bland—is the granddaughter of the leader of a “rival” Coven that has come to town, one with an alleged history of dark magic. This, naturally, is meant to set she and Dayna at odds, or at least to position them as star-crossed lovers to set up some tension.
Unfortunately for WITCHES OF ASH AND RUIN, the tension never arrives, and instead readers spend half the book knowing these two characters will get together, and—at least from my end—not really caring. We get bogged down in the awkward drama of their exes (who each have their own POV chapters) and the relationship never really clicks. Part of this is because Dayna is a flat character who doesn’t spark with anyone in the book, and is hard for even readers to connect to.
But lackluster sapphic romances (and romances in general) are something I’m used to in my YA books, and I believe in throwing support behind stories that promote f/f pairings, and so I would have put my frustration with the romance aside were it not for the absolute lack of any kind of research on the author’s part.
The book allegedly takes place in Ireland, and I know this because it was on the back of the book. The cast reads American. The town reads American. The language and culture and slang reads American. Almost every detail is depicted as a small American town, trafficking on standard American experiences. It even has “soccer moms”, a phrase that sent me reeling so much in the first chapter that I had to actually double-check the flap to make sure I hadn’t just made up the Irish thing. It made me wonder if this book was initially set in America, and at some point an editor told the author to set it in Ireland for the buzz and plot connectivity.
Maybe it’s because I spent my teen years googling British slang because I was terrified of the fanfic police arresting me for being American, but the absolute lack of care spent on fleshing out the culture and setting of the book set my teeth on edge.
And if the Ireland oddity weren’t bizarre enough, Dayna’s father—referred to exclusively as the reverend—is the leader of the local Catholic church. Her father’s religious position is meant to highlight how uncomfortable Dayna is with her family, due to her magic and sexuality, but instead I was left just reeling with confusion at how a married man with a daughter is able to be the leader of a Catholic parish. (For those like the author who are not Catholic, the leader of a Catholic parish is a priest, a species of dude who is kind of famously single.) I spent far too much of the book expecting this to be explained away. Where were the priests? Maybe they got killed? Nope. The author just straight up seemed to forget that priests are a thing, and are different from reverends. I suppose this is all explained away by the fact that the church “likely no longer qualifies as Catholic” and is largely set up as a type of cult. Well, alright. Checks out. I, too, likely no longer qualify as Catholic and am probably in a cult.
These issues, in conjunction with an overabundance of POVs and dropped subplots ultimately canceled out the things I did really like about the book, like its diversity and tight pacing. Is this a bad book? No. But is it a good one? Eh. Unfortunately, WITCHES OF ASH AND RUIN suffers from a problem I keep running into lately: the concept of the book is just much better than the execution.
I was provided with a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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