‘Wicca’ is what the ‘Twilight’ phenomenon should have been about.
This reviewer isn’t as vehement a critic of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire saga as some, having read the series and found some things to enjoy about it, but, having read ‘Wicca’ several years before in my early teens, it’s hard not to feel that this beautiful, fifteen-book epic by Cate Tiernan was far more deserving of the YA craze that later took off.
Seemingly ordinary high school girl Morgan Rowlands finds her life altered when handsome newcomer Cal Blaire arrives in her hometown of Widow’s Vale, and quickly becomes the object of desire for every girl in school, not least Morgan herself. When Cal reveals his Wiccan beliefs and decides to form a local coven, Morgan finds herself drawn deeper into his world as she starts displaying a talent for witchcraft herself, leading to conflict not just with her best friend Bree, who also has her eye on Cal, but with rival coven leader Sky Eventide and her cousin Hunter Niall, a Seeker for the International Council of Witches, who is determined to investigate Cal and his mother Selene for possible misuse of magic.
‘Wicca’ (or ‘Sweep’ in the US), although sharing the same Young Adult paranormal DNA as ‘Twilight’, is a richly-crafted world full of well-written and developed characters and in-story atmosphere and logic that most detractors of Meyer’s saga complain that her series lacks. The world-building and establishment of rules within the story, meshing together elements of real-life Wiccan practice and obviously invented supernatural phenomena is understated, yet hugely impressive, seeping the books in a sense of authenticity, despite the paranormal setting. The juxtaposition of this hidden world with everyday issues of high school and family life, while hardly uncommon to YA fiction, is a wise move, making the story and characters relatable to their intended readership, and grounding them in a reality the reader can almost see themselves in. While some real-life practitioners of Wicca have criticised the books for their apparent sensationalising of much of the religion’s rituals, from an objective point of view this reviewer can appreciate the need for dramatic licence for a story that is, at the end of the day, about the supernatural, and it’s abundantly clear throughout that Tiernan intends no offence to real-life Wiccans. Her aim is to tell a compelling story, and in this, she more than succeeds.
The characters that populate her world are a rich cast, every one of them believable, well-rounded, and undergoing change and growth as the series progresses. Central heroine Morgan, while just as subject to the natural vulnerabilities and worries of high school life as any real-life teenager, has the sort of backbone critics craved in Bella Swan, especially in the later books, and is the ideal window for the reader into the new, exciting world of witches and magick that she enters. Besotted with handsome new arrival Cal, but evidently subconsciously aware that something’s not quite right about their relationship, she makes the sort of correct decisions that all too many fictional teenage girls fail to, and there’s a real sense of triumph when she finally gets the measure of him, and makes her choice about how who to trust. Her horror at uncovering the secrets of her true parentage, and her struggles with her adopted parents over conflicting ideas of faith give us plenty to root for over the course of the series, and her slowburn romance with initial enemy Hunter is one of the true joys of the saga, to the point where her devastation over his apparent fate in final book ‘Night’s Child’ is keenly and heartbreakingly felt by the reader.
Hunter himself is the sort of love interest that typically makes a YA readership swoon, while being at the same time much more understated in his heroism than the likes of Edward Cullen, bringing a quiet strength and reserved quality that pays off all the greater when his guard finally lowers. The decision to devote some of the later books, or parts of them, to his point of view is a great one, ensuring that by the time he strikes out on his own in Book 10, ‘Seeker’, we’re still fully engaged and ready to accompany him on his journey, despite Morgan’s absence for most of the book. His conflicting sense of duty and guilt over having to take action against shop owner David Redstone in Book 5, ‘Awakening’, risking alienating Morgan just as they’re starting to grow close, is one of the highlights of the whole series.
One of the series’ best rug pulls is the unmasking of initial love interest Cal as an antagonist, and ultimately reversing his and Hunter’s original positions in the mind of the reader, and it’s to Tiernan’s credit that even after his exposure in Book 4, ‘Dark Magick’, he remains an interesting, three dimensional character, not as wholly bad as it would have been all too easy to write him from then on. The surprisingly early exit of the ‘Edward’ of the series, less than halfway through, remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the better trajectories of a YA hero due to its unexpectedness, though penultimate book ‘Full Circle’, as the title would suggest, does return to his story.
The series enjoys an impressive collection of villains generally, the decision not to rely on just one antagonist, a la Harry Potter’s Voldemort, proving to be one of this reviewer’s favourite decisions by the author. From her first boyfriend and his mother, to the very Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader conflict with her biological father (one of the most interesting, well-rounded characters of the whole saga) to her utterly odious half-sister, all of her enemies are intimately connected to Morgan herself and to each other, making her conflicts with them all feel like a natural evolution of her journey and story as they occur, rather than bringing in some external ‘big bad’ purely for the sake of it.
Not that there aren’t some arguable missteps on Tiernan’s part. For the most part, her choice to tell the story from points of view besides Morgan’s pays off well, from the excellent use of diary entries by characters like Hunter building to whole sections of, or entire books told from his perspective, to the majority of Book 11, ‘Origins’, being told from the POV of Morgan’s ancestor Rose via the device of an ancient journal, to the split-perspective of the finale, ‘Night’s Child’ between Morgan and her daughter Moira. The decision, however, to devote some of Book 12, ‘Eclipse’, and all of Book 13, ‘Reckoning’, to secondary character Alisa, as interesting as she is, feels just a little too random, a little too much like a whole other story, given that the following two books bring the entire saga to a close. Placed so late in the series, it can’t help but feel a bit like filler before the buildup to the series finale, Tiernan perhaps temporarily unsure where to go with the series before the misfortune of declining sales made her decide to start wrapping the saga up. And it’s slightly frustrating to have some later entries like Book 9, ‘Strife’, devote so much time to high school melodrama and parental/child conflict over rather mundane issues like homework, after successfully avoiding this earlier in the series. The decision to follow the journey of Moira in ‘Night’s Child’, meanwhile, while a more than interesting character in her own right, is initially very jarring stylistically, the book shifting to third person after sticking reliably to first in every preceding one.
These are minor grievances, however, in the overall scheme of things. This is a saga full of lively, likeable characters and immersive romance, engaging intrigues and mysteries, and sporadic, but always well-earned and exciting action. It covers impressively mature ground at times, such as conflict over differing faiths, with Morgan’s Catholic parents displaying real difficulty in accepting her practice of witchcraft, as well as the idea that handsome or beautiful people are not always virtuous or trustworthy, the character trajectory of initial dreamboat Cal a refreshing antidote to the outwardly gorgeous = inwardly beautiful take on love interests in ‘Twilight’. Wicca is the sort of YA phenomenon that teenagers deserved to have, and this reviewer still craves the day that a film or TV adaptation finally sees Morgan Rowlands, Hunter Niall and their supporting cast come to life in the flesh. It would be, to pardon the pun, magic.
A well-written, richly crafted supernatural world, full of relatable characters, sweeping romance, impressive twists, and all seeped, appropriately, in magic and atmosphere.