Written by E. Latimer
2020, 384 pages, Fiction
Released on 3 March 2020
E. Latimer’s Witches of Ash and Ruin has a striking opening sequence; seventeen-year-old Dayna Walsh is in school and struggling to cope with terrible OCD when a flock of birds fly and crash against the classroom windows. Dayna suspects it is somehow connected to herself, probably because she is a ‘witchling’, the term used for a trainee witch who has not completed her training and is yet to ‘ascend’ to full witch status. It is worth pointing out that I think the term ‘witchling’ is completely naff and belongs in nursery along with the Worst Witch series and is too juvenile to be used in a YA novel. Dayna has recently split up from Samuel and is coming to terms with the fact she is bisexual, which is a key part of the plot. She is also part of a local witch’s coven, that effectively hides in plain sight, and her religiously strict father has no idea that she is training to be a witch. As the story is set in rural Ireland, a Catholic country, religion also plays a part in the plot.
The story is told in five different voices, Dayna is the only one belonging to the local coven, along with ex-boyfriend Samuel, who has a smaller part, is unaware of the coven, and drifts in and out of proceedings. Two of the other voices are Meiner and Cora, who come from a visiting coven and appear after another local witch is murdered. The two covens then band together, but with much distrust and friction, and attempt to solve the murder, dealing with any supernatural consequences it might have. The fifth voice is of one of the killers, Dubh, who pops up here and there, but has limited interactions with the main characters until near the end.
Both Cora and Meiner were in a previous relationship together; sparks begin to fly when there is obvious attraction between Meiner and Dayna. It’s good to see gay characters having strong roles in YA fiction, but it rather dominates the supernatural element of the story and becomes repetitive and might put off readers more interested in the occult thread. Interested readers may well find themselves going to Google to look up the various Irish mythological entities mentioned, which have some bearing on the story. Everything moves along at a decent pace and is connected to a serial killer who may have murdered many times in the past. YA readers should find this a solid, if undemanding read, and may well feel they have been here before, as there are many novels of a similar ilk on the market.
I was unconvinced by the theology behind the book, which a teenager reader probably will not pick up on. In talking about her father, the ‘reverend’, Dayna says, “Over the years, her father’s church had begun to star into strange territory. Likely they no longer qualified as Catholic. As far as she could see, they did what the reverend told them to.” If they were Catholic, her father would be a priest, and if he was Catholic, he would not be married with a daughter. ‘Reverend’ is a Protestant term and in the Republic of Ireland there are very few of them, but at least he would be able to get married. So, what is he? It does not make sense.
Witches of Ash and Ruin fails to come across as authentically Irish. All the action is set in a small country Irish town, but this could have been anywhere and there is a lack of detail and descriptions, apart from the odd stone circle referenced. I appreciate the author is not from the Emerald Isle and American audiences might settle for this, but for British teenagers who might have read Peadar O'Guilin’s The Call, Deirdrie Sullivan's Perfectly Preventable Deaths or Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt will find the background setting to be rather nondescript. The setting in a novel like this is just as important as the developing relationships between the girls, but it is not presented that way. Also, for a novel about witchcraft, for long periods the dark arts are entirely absent from the story and this might frustrate some teen readers who find the romance stuff just a big too heavy.
I also found the gender balance misfired and potential male readers may be disappointed to find that the only teenage boy, for the most part, plays second fiddle to the witch girls. There is a real lack of male central character in current YA fiction and Witches of Ash and Ruin is another example to add to the pile. Whilst the three witch girls are portrayed as resilient teenagers, Samuel does not come across the same way, even though his storyline of investigating serial killers is a good one, ultimately he spends too much time mooning over his ex-girlfriend Dayna, which was not especially believable and marginalised from the main plotline.
Modern YA has an excellent reputation for exploring sexual diversity, but having all three teenage girls seemingly gay or bisexual is overkill and unrealistic. Meiner and Cora had been in a relationship prior to meeting Dayna, who is just realising she is bisexual and finds herself attracted to Meiner. I swiftly grew tired of the teenage flirting, which seems to turn into something of a soap-opera, and lost count of the amount of times Dayna blushed or had prickles on her neck when Meiner brushed her hand. Admittedly, a genuine teen reader might not find this as frustrating as myself, but fantasy readers may well find that the story is unnecessarily weighed down by flirting whilst the true villain, Dubh, is underused in the background.
If you don’t dig too deep Witches of Ash and Ruin is a solid mythological fantasy novel which should appeal to teenage girls – few boys will read this – but when you look below the surface, it is not quite so convincing. The end promises a sequel and I’ll be interested to see if there is any demand for it.