Book Review: These Witches Don't Burn by Isabel Sterling



3.75 Stars

Mild to moderate spoilers


I first came across the title when a friend posted the picture on Instagram. The cover is cute and puts the book right in the YA category with urban fantasy and LGBTQ+ themes mixed in. In fact, the book deals with the story of a lesbian teenage witch. The hint of something dark and sinister lurking around was an added bonus. For me, the book had all elements that would make it a great story.


But I didn’t pick it up until this month. One reason being my wariness when it comes to reading YA fiction or LGBTQ+ romance. I didn’t want to risk reading a book that would ruin their beauty for me by following cringe-worthy tropes (once bitten twice shy). I wanted to be sure that the book dealt with emotional issues while handling a solid plotline.


After reading reviews, I decided it was worth trying. And what better time than pride month to read this book? Moreover, it also covers the topic of the month, lovers.


So here is what I like about the book, and what I feel could have been better.

The Beginning

The book starts with a bang. The MC talks about her love-hate relationship with her ex, Veronica, and continues on about her parents’ reaction when she came out (which to me is one of the best reactions).

The tone is typical YA (she’s 17). She rants, sniffles, cries, and mutters. But she doesn’t go off-tangent about her jumbled feelings. That for me is a big plus. After reading books in the first-person narration with female leads who can ramble for pages, this does bring me some relief.


The story progresses well, dealing with the vulnerable side of Hannah, our heroine, and how the ex appears to be manipulating her. I like the touches of doubt, instinctive reactions, and also her ability to pull herself together and say, ‘this is enough’. While it does get a little extra at one point, it’s easy to understand why. They are childhood friends and have known each other for a long time.


The Pacing

The book doesn’t have a steady pace. It rushes forward at times (action scenes) and slows down when dealing with the emotional aspects. This is something that worked for me. It brought out the depth and insecurities of the characters and made them multidimensional. The author doesn’t do that to every character, but the main ones are handled well.


At the same time, this pacing made it difficult to categorize the book into a specific genre. It’s neither a thriller nor a full-fledged fantasy, nor a romance. It’s there, but not there. Those looking for something specific to one genre may not be able to find it.


Characterizations

Hannah: She might be an Elemental witch, but her feelings are human. She’s got power but isn’t trained to use it to the full potential. She is someone I don’t mind reading as a heroine. She’s good, not-so-good, and even stupid at times. She’s strong yet weak. She’s capable yet doubtful. She aggressive at times and a wreck a few other times. But none of them are exaggerated.


Veronica: She starts out as the typical narcissistic and manipulative ex. Her character doesn’t have much change until the end. As a fellow witch and a childhood friend, she calls out to Hannah every time she’s in trouble. She’s careless and doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions. She makes you dislike her quite a bit (maybe even hate her, if you love Hannah). I wish there was more to her. We could only get a glimpse of the Veronica that isn't just Hannah’s ex.


Gemma: She’s a delightful character. A bit silly yet the kind of bestie every girl needs in her life. Her constant support, concern, and acceptance are wonderful. The way she handles the truth about the witch part (spoilers) is adorable and delightful.


Morgan: Her character has a lot of promise. She’s sweet, sturdy, vulnerable yet assertive. I’m looking forward to reading the next book and see how her character develops. She also breaks the stereotype in a way in the book (avoiding spoilers).


Others: Lady Ariana is my favorite. She’s the epitome of power, control, and disciple. Detective Archer, Evan, Nolan, Cal, Lauren, Savannah were more or less one dimensional and did what they should do as per the plot. I hope the detective and Lauren have better roles in the next book. Benton wasn’t as developed as he could've been. The twist (though predictable midway) fell flat because his character wasn’t fully defined.


My biggest issue is with the development of Hannah’s parents. They play an important role, and I wanted to know more about them. Hannah tells us about her relationship with her father, yet, I couldn’t feel it as much as I wanted to. Maybe because the author wanted to stick to the YA theme, Hannah's feelings are more apparent when it comes to Veronica. I wanted the same for her parents.


Witchcraft and Magic

I like how ‘Elementals worked throughout the story. The intricate connection between their emotions and nature’s elements was a treat to read. There isn’t much magic that happens (which is a bit disappointing) but what’s shown is good. It’s respectful and powerful.


LGBTQ+

As a queer author, it’s no surprise that she does justice to the theme. My favorite parts are when queer, Sapphic, and m/m relationships are shown as a part of life, just as they should be. I love that the world in the book is more open and better at accepting something perceived as ‘different’. Still, we see people who don’t readily accept the queer characters and that keeps the story realistic (in the present times). That too has been handled with care. There is no hatred; just a sad acceptance that things will take time to change.


Romance

Being a YA book, I wasn’t looking for anything explicit or intense in terms of romance. But it would be safe to say that there isn’t much romance in the book. There’s some kissing, yes, but I don’t tag it under 'romance'. Veronica takes half the space, which means we see Hannah struggling to get over her ex through more than 60% of the book. Yet, we see only the after-effects of their relationship.


The love story with Morgan is in the initial stages. It’s also shadowed immediately by other aspects of the story. We can’t call it insta-love (more like insta-crush), which is justified by a major extent in the story. What I like is the beginning of a romance that is capable of becoming something wonderful. The duo is surrounded by uncertainties and danger. And their attempts to stay connected to each other is beautiful to read.


I must say I was disappointed when Hannah went off on her own in the end to confront the suspect/ attacker. But Morgan was there, a silent and strengthening presence in the book. She’s the kind of lover one would want in life- supportive, playful, assertive, and sensitive.


Climax and Conclusion

One certain death is unexpected though I understand it's important for Hannah’s character to grow (in the next book). The action scenes and climax are pretty fast-paced, rushed even. As a reader rooting for Hannah, I wanted her to save herself. But as a writer and sensible reader, I appreciated how the author kept the struggle real. She didn’t make Hannah a hero. That girl needed saving, and helps comes from outside. It’s lesson for her to learn. That’s keeping things real, even in a fantasy. A definite plus for me.


Final Word

Those who don’t want to focus on a specific theme/ trope will love this book. It’s well-written and engaging. But will it be one of the most memorable ones? I don’t think so. It’s cozy and warm, but that’s it.


Trigger warnings for the book: Parental death, fire, violence (moderate), car crash, and animal death.

About the Author: Srivalli Rekha is a blogger, writer, and amateur photographer. She got a degree in MBA and MA English Literature and chose to become a writer and a poet instead of a corporate professional.


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