Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches – Sangu Mandanna
by Sangu Mandanna
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication Date: August 23, 2022
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family--and a new love--changes the course of her life.
As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don't mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she's used to being alone and she follows the rules...with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.
But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and...Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he's concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.
As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn't know she was looking for....
I’ve read several of this author’s YA releases, so when I heard she was coming out with an adult romance – and then saw THAT COVER – I was desperate to read it. Add in a slow burn grumpy/sunshine romance? Pure comfort. It’s the book equivalent of sitting by a crackling fire with a hot drink on a rainy day, all warm and cozy under a blanket with a book close by. It’s also got so many found family feels that my heart felt like it was bursting.
“An absent archaeologist, a housekeeper, a librarian, a gardener, a retired actor, and three unlikely witches. As backstories went, it was one of the weirdest Mika had ever heard.”
Mika was raised by Persimmon, the leader of the witch group in England, to believe that spending time with other witches was too dangerous. Magic naturally collects around a witch and too much magic in one place could lead to unintended effects – and their discovery. Instead, they make do by meeting for a few hours every three months. Mika chafes at this restriction and the loneliness it causes and, in order to share some of her love of magic, she has an online witchy channel where she does obviously fake magic. When someone messages her offering her a position teaching magic to three young witches, she’s hesitant, but agrees. Nowhere House and its residents are nothing like what she expected, but one thing is clear: her charges need to learn to take care of their magic, and fast.
“This is either going to be the miracle you hoped for or it’s going to be an absolute fucking disaster.”
Mika is the heart of the story. Raised by a revolving door of sometimes abusive and always emotionally aloof nannies and caretakers, no one would be surprised if she was cold and cynical. Instead, she’s a warm ray of sunshine incarnate who quickly charms most of the house’s residents. Each one of them has their own backstory, role and reaction to Mika and before she knows it Mika’s been folded into one of the most charming found families I’ve ever read. Jamie is the house’s librarian, but more importantly, he’s the most protective of the girls. It’s no wonder he stays suspicious of Mika! In true stern and grumpy fashion he’s flummoxed and annoyed by Mika’s relentless cheerfulness. The three girls – Rosetta, Terracotta and Altamira – are absolute agents of chaos and I loved them, even when one or more of them was threatening to murder Mika (especially then?). Mika’s unphased by most of it, and shows a depth of empathy towards them, and the other occupants, that was so tender that it made me deeply emotional.
There’s a romance between Mika and Jamie that runs through the story. It’s very slowburn due to, well, a boatload of trauma on both sides. Mika’s spent her whole life teaching herself not to care, moving constantly and never able to share her full magical self except for a few measly hours a year. Jamie’s gruffness and lack of social niceties are frankly refreshing for someone who’s never been particularly good at them. The sense of home and family she finds at Nowhere House is overwhelming and frankly frightening, and what she starts to feel for Jamie? Even worse. Jamie’s distrust melts away as he watches Mika interact with the girls and the feelings underneath slowly sneak up on him. There’s even a nice hand clenching easter egg for us P&P movie fans! Add in some meddling from the other residents and you’ve got everything to make a ridiculously sweet romance.
“Nowhere House was shifting in Mika’s mind. The new Nowhere House was messier than the first, a place made up of fractured pieces that, somehow, had come together to make something whole and wonderful.”
The worlbuilding is lovely. The magic is described with enough Mika’s particular speciality is potions and teas, mixed with various plants and other more esoteric items like moonshine and stardust. Mika’s love of her magic is so joyful and transcendent that I couldn’t help smiling. It’s a bit bittersweet, though, too, as part of its attraction to her is that it’s something that’s always with her, even at her most lonely. Much like Mika’s magic, the story is hopeful, not in an epic way, but more of an everyday way; that making life better for all of them doesn’t require a seismic change but a gradual one. The writing is simply lovely as well, sprinkling humor and devastatingly insightful bits throughout. I highlighted so many passages that the word count of all those quotes was triple the size of this review! There’s a lot going on, but the book skillfully handles several big topics. Of course there the issue of family, of the ways families of origin can hurt people and the ways found families can heal. There’s the difference between being “nice” and being “kind.” And, most importantly, the difference between loving and being loved.
Now – with the caveat again that I’m a White American woman – it’s not surprising that a book that covers dealing with family trauma also deals with colonialism. Due to a curse, all witches are orphans. Mika was originally from Southern India and was raised in England by a White woman – or rather the nannies she hired. Mika’s three young charges are Palestinian, Black and Vietnamese, plucked out of their countries after their parents’ deaths by another White woman who leaves them in the care of mostly-White adults (one is Japanese). They’re given new names, and in at least one case the child was old enough to have already known her birth name. The girls’ daily caretakers are not unaware of the problems with this, though they’re a bit clueless how to handle it. At one point, Mika tells some of them, with an amazing lack of acerbity, that while she’s been hired to teach them to become Witches in Society, she can’t teach them to become BIPOC Women in Society since she’s not from any of their cultures. So while all of this was done with good intentions, well, so was colonialism. It’s a bit like Mika’s explanation of the differences between “nice” and “kind.” I mean, it is true that they’re saving them, so that’s nice – they were all orphaned and without question it made sense for a witch to take care of them until they mastered their magic. But is it kind to remove them completely from their cultures? I don’t know, and it was something I chewed over while reading the book.
“I can’t transform the world, Jamie. The world’s too big and too messy and too stubborn.”
“Who said anything about transforming the world?” He shrugged. “What about just making it a little better? And then a little better? And then a little more, until, one day, maybe long after we’re gone, it has transformed? You deserve more than what you’re allowing yourself to have.”
Overall, this was a magical story about found family and love. I’ve already preordered the physical book and an ebook because I immediately knew this would be a comfort read I’d come back to over and over. I have no idea what the author plans to write next, but I am desperately hoping she writes more adult romance!
Content notes: View Spoiler »parental death, abuse by siblings, child in danger, racism, misogyny, dead bodies, reference to domestic abuse « Hide Spoiler