The summer(?) of witches continues with The Witches at the End of the World, by Chelsea Iversen. From contemporary romance we travel to historical fiction with this small tale of sisterhood nestled in the woods of Norway centuries ago. I’m impressed with how Iversen won me over despite my qualms about the book’s pacing and plot! I received an eARC from NetGalley and publisher Sourcebooks in exchange for my review.
Kaija and Minna are witches. For most of their lives, they have lived in seclusion in the birchwoods with their adoptive mother, who spirited them away from the village of their birth after their mother was burned at the stake for witchcraft. Now grown, their adoptive mother dead, Kaija and Minna are at a crossroads. Kaija is determined to return to the village and establish an “ordinary” life for herself. Minna, far darker of temperament, sees no need to suppress her magic or fit in with ordinary people. The sisters part ways, each trying to find success at the life they want to lead. Of course, it can’t be that simple….
I was intrigued by the promise of sister drama. Minna’s bitterness towards the world as a result of her and her mother’s persecution is a dark seed that she willingly nurtures. When Kaija abandons her—as she sees it—she is rightly furious. As Kaija works to establish a new life for herself, Minna seeks her out and plots something that is, if not revenge, then revenge-adjacent. The tragedy of Minna’s descent into antagonist and eventual blackhearted villain was so tantalizing for me. However, lest I misrepresent the book and at risk of spoilers—it is not quite meant to be.
Now, the book is still about the bond of sisterhood. That much remains intact, and it’s this theme that kept me going. Watching Minna pull herself back from the brink of darkness proves compelling even as Kaija must grapple with her own setbacks. I admit that Iversen likely made the right call by ensuring that the worst of Kaija’s misfortunes are not directly wrought by Minna. Not only does it offer a pathway to redemption for Minna in the eyes of Kaija and the reader alike, but it’s a potent reminder that often our worst moments in life are not anyone’s fault. Circumstances just suck sometimes.
I liked this book. I also struggled with this book. It’s just slow. It’s a lot of narration from each sister, and it takes forever to get going. Yet at the same time, it feels like we never get to know anyone other than Kaija and Minna. They hold every other character at arm’s length in their narration. Fifteen years in and I still don’t have a great term to describe how I feel about this style of writing. The closest I can get is that I can’t connect with the characters. It’s possibly related to my inability to visualize as I read: authors who rely primarily on descriptive language tend to fall flatter for me than authors who use more dialogue and action.
So, as is usually the case, your mileage may vary. This is a sweet story of sisterhood and dreams denied. It’s a tragedy wrapped around family ties, and it’s an interesting exploration of the ways in which internalized misogyny can fuck you up. But it’s a little slow, and it never quite lives up to the promises I feel like it establishes at the start of the story.