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Reviewed by Asher Syed for Readers' Favorite
Burning the Witches by Penn Fawn is a story rooted in historical paganism and is a companion novel to the author's already published book one in the Underworld Series, The Fourth Tier. This is an origin story for the witch Hespatia, who is a protagonist in Fourth Tier, but is given full backstory treatment here. The book is written in an omniscient point of view and, particularly in the first half, reads like part story, and part educational guide on ancient sociology, complete with the social customs and cultural, almost tribal structure of communities and those who reside in them. Hespatia treads water outside the expectations of young women, where consequences can be swift and harsh, and experiences this when she finds herself unwed and pregnant. As the avalanche of community perception builds, so too does Hespatia's awareness of herself. She is spiritually gifted, something she shares with people she is close to. There is a groundswell of individuals who are moved by Hespatia's gifts and seek to harness their own. Whatever swift and harsh ostracization Hespatia's contemporaries were subjected to before are nothing compared to what is to come in Burning the Witches.
Show me a series where witches are not depicted as purveyors of carnival magic and are instead true movers of energy and life-force...and I'll show you a reader who will be devoted to the work FOR LIFE. Penn Fawn breathed life into a true devotion to paganism that was deadly at this time, and the lengths a community will go to stamp it out. I appreciated Fawn's focus on what witchcraft truly is and for debunking the silly fables that readers are generally fed. I am also grateful for the phonetic spelling of 'Usher', which is how my name, Asher, is actually pronounced. While this is personally gratifying, it also shows the author is willing to establish authenticity.
Historical accuracy woven into a story is the mark of disciplined research and it is what sets Fawn apart from the pack. This is further solidified in the same scene that the ancillary Usher appears in with demonic possession. This and all else is described in heart-stopping detail that readers who share this belief will relish because the suspension of disbelief is not required, nor is conflating how this happens, why it happens, and what can be done about it. Fawn writes to entertain but uses truth and accuracy to hammer home the drama. Finally, I loved the trial scenes and the courage of the defendants in the face of a horrible, torturous death. One is asked why they hide in the forest to practice and answers with a line that I have been reciting in the mirror all day: “Because of the ridiculous myths that have been ascribed to our practice over time.” Fawn is not playing with these myths, and as readers we thank the author for that. Recommended.