TITLE: Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft
EDITORS: Jessica Spotswood, Tess Sharpe
RELEASES: August 28th, 2018; Harlequin Teen
AGE RANGE: YA
SYNOPSIS: From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.
She didn’t understand she’d done it. We all had, and we were only getting started. She didn’t realize that all her roaring, living, breathing anger could create so much light.
When I heard that this incredible, diverse cast of women were gathering to create an anthology about witches, feminism, queer girls, girls of color, survivors, and so much more, I was sold from the jump. This isn’t something I talk about often online, because it feels like baring my soul a little too much, but much of my childhood was spent with my grandmother—a self-proclaimed witch herself—and after the things she taught me and what I have seen and done, I’ve identified as one for a very long time. Growing up with those beliefs and feelings made it difficult to see the constant negative and horrifying portrayals of witches. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a villainous witch as much as the next person, but sometimes, I just wanted the angry, vengeance-seeking witchy girls to be the heroes for once. Enter Toil and Trouble.
Nothing about this collection disappointed me in the slightest; in fact, I can confidently say that this is the SINGLE best anthology I have ever read in my life. I have never loved a collection of short stories so much, and I cannot begin to describe how much the witches in these stories meant to me. I’ve rambled enough at this point, though (and I’m sure a few of you are side-eyeing me a little after that last paragraph, but that’s okay, too), so let’s jump into the breakdown.
→ F A V O R I T E S ←
The Gherin Girls — Emery Lord
The One Who Stayed — Nova Ren Suma
Death in the Sawtooths — Lindsay Smith
→ Starsong — Tehlor Kay Mejia ★★★★★ ←
Maybe we were just two people chasing numbness because we didn’t know what the stardust inside us was for.
Ever since I read Tehlor’s story in All Out, I’ve wanted more of her writing, and this did not disappoint! It’s a story of a young Latinx girl who is an Instagram model and a bruja, and it’s full of magic and remorse and healing and cute girl-on-girl flirting. My favorite aspect was the narrator’s confidence in her own appearance, which is something we don’t see nearly enough of. ♥ This piece is written for people who believe in the stars, and magic, and more, and I loved every word of it.
→ Afterbirth — Andrea Cremer ★★★★★ ←
“They will see the devil in those pages because they will choose to.”
Afterbirth alternates between a young apprenticing midwife’s narrative, and a legal trial for her teacher, a woman now being accused of witchcraft for saving a newborn that appeared stillborn. The story is set in the 1600s, and the writing feels so gorgeous and atmospheric. There are a lot of things left to be questioned, but it fits the scene somehow.
→ The Heart in Her Hands — Tess Sharpe ★★★★☆ ←
There is no emptiness in a devoted heart.
This was my first time reading Tess Sharpe’s writing, and I have to say, it was lovely. This story tells of a world where witchcraft is seemingly considered altogether normal, and Bette comes from a line of healers who are marked with the first words of their soul mate. The problem is that Bette already loves someone, and she’s determined not to give up her love for Fate’s idea of what her future should look like. My only complaint is that parts felt rushed and under-explained; it could have benefited greatly from being longer. That said, it was beautifully queer and feminist, and the “kitchen witch” line (if you’ve read it, you know) had me grinning ear to ear.
→ Death in the Sawtooths — Lindsay Smith ★★★★★ ←
Folks can hate me, shun me, fear me all they want, but I’ll lay their bones to rest.
I love stories about necromancers, but we never see enough of them—and especially not ones like this, where the spirits are being laid to rest, rather than being raised. Mattie is a servant of Xosia, the lady of death, and her gift is to lay spirits to rest, but the entire town spurns her out of fear—until they need her talents, of course. This was my whole witchy aesthetic, with a touch of eeriness to it, and frankly, now I just want an entire urban fantasy series about Mattie.
→ The Truth About Queenie — Brandy Colbert ★★★★☆ ←
Sometimes if you pretend like a part of you simply doesn’t exist, you can will it away.
After hearing so many rave reviews of Brandy’s writing, I was eager to finally check out her style through this short story, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s hard enough on Queenie’s family to be the only black people in the neighborhood, but being witches on top of it? That’s just asking for trouble. Queenie tries her hardest to hide her powers and even convince herself they don’t exist, but when her pro-skaterboarder best friend comes home for a visit, she finds herself in a place where she’s forced to use her gifts, or leave her friend broken-hearted. It reads like a fluffy contemporary with a touch of magic, but I loved the sentiment that Queenie doesn’t need spells or crystals, just belief and energy.
→ The Moonapple Menagerie — Shveta Thakrar ★★★☆☆ ←
Some things, though, you had to do without your sisters. That was why she would never tell them she’d petitioned the bone palace for help.
When Shalini is tasked with writing a play that she can’t quite seem to nail the ending on, she reaches out for help, but forgets that assistance from feyfolk and spirits always comes at a price. This story is definitely a mixed bag for me. The girls are almost all POC, and the author herself is South Asian. There’s a lot of lore thrown in, which I LOVED, but some of it does require you to have pre-existing knowledge of the stories, so if you don’t, it may not carry the same weight. Unfortunately, the writing just didn’t mesh with me (which surprises me, since I loved this author’s submission in another anthology earlier this year!). It felt a little immature and something about it reminded me of children’s fairytales (albeit creepier), which isn’t what I was hoping for.
→ The Legend of Stone Mary — Robin Talley ★★★★☆ ←
Everybody for miles around used to remember the story of Mary Keegan’s curse, but you wouldn’t know it now.
Wendy Keegan is the descendant of a famous witch in her small town, and the townspeople never let her forget it, ostracizing and bullying her relentlessly for her birthright. Desperate for friendship, she agrees to tag along to visit her ancestor’s memorial statue one Halloween night, but strange occurrences will change the way the town views her family—for better and for worse. Let me tell you guys, I am a total sucker for curse stories—stuff like this is honestly one of the things I live for in witchy tales, so I knew this would be a winner for me, and it was. I did take off a star because the romantic aspect felt forced (which doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve never felt any chemistry in any of Talley’s writing), though I appreciated that it was f/f regardless.
→ The One Who Stayed — Nova Ren Suma ★★★★★ ←
The storm inside her could fill this whole wooded grove and take us over. She was coming. Were we ready?
A group of witches circle a fire in the woods, waiting for the girl that will come running to them—hoping that, this time, she stays and fights. This was easily my favorite in the collection so far. The writing is haunting and lyrical and gorgeous, immediately making me want to pick up full works from Nova Ren Suma, and the content is heavy and heartbreaking. I figured out what was going on pretty quickly, and watching it come together was enough to make me cry through most of the story, but the solidarity between these girls is everything. Stories like this represent precisely the type of modern witches we need.
→ Divine Are the Stars — Zoraida Córdova ★★★★☆ ←
“We become what we need,” Marimar said, and though the stars were hidden, she knew they were listening.
The fact that I love magical realism so much makes it shocking that this was my first taste of Zoraida’s writing, I know, but I definitely want to read more from her now. Marimar travels home to visit her dying grandmother, and finds a strength and connection to her roots that she’d always been missing. It’s not just a story of witchcraft or magic; more than anything, it’s a tale of family, and loving and accepting yourself, as well as your history and culture.
→ Daughters of Baba Yaga — Brenna Yovanoff ★★★★★ ←
This time, the magic was cool and slow. I was a poison night-flower blooming on black, not righteous, but vengeful.
I always loved the legend of Baba Yaga, so I get really excited about any sort of retellings involving that story, and this did not disappoint. In this story, the main character is alienated at her school a bit, but she is approached by another girl who knows Stony is a witch, and who claims to be a witch as well. She quickly proves herself to Stony, though her form of magic is entirely different, and throughout the piece, we are shown this idea where Stony explains that there are different types of witches who perform their magic differently, but they’re all valid and need to support one another. It was a little creepy, a little strange, and a whole lot of righteously angry feminism, and I loved it.
→ The Well Witch — Kate Hart ★★★★★ ←
Men were the most unpredictable animals.
I was not expecting a 19th-century western story in this collection, but I got it, and I loved it. Elsa is a witch who can conjure up water in the desert, and she’s been living alone in her late parents’ cabin for three years when a trio of men show up, seeking shelter. While one of them has pure intentions, the other two are less than noble, and Elsa is forced to find a way to save her own life with her magic. This one was surprisingly sad and dark, but I really enjoyed Elsa’s character and the entire setting—simplistic, but immersive.
→ Beware of Girls With Crooked Mouths — Jessica Spotswood ★★★★☆ ←
In every generation, one Campbell witch goes mad and murders the others. It has always been so. Will always be so.
I have heard such rave reviews of Jessica Spotswood’s writing that I was eager to get to this story, and it truly had such a unique and incredible plot. In this family of witches, each generation is cursed with a forced matriarchy: only one girl from each generation will live, and she will carry on the household until the next girls take it. Because of the curse, these three sisters are forced to grow up distrusting one another, but they are determined to beat the curse—until one of them has a vision that tells her the other two girls can only live if she can force them to go far away and never return. It was such an intriguing and heartbreaking scenario, and I loved the execution of it until the ending, where it suddenly fell flat enough for me that I had to knock off a star. That said, I can’t wait to read more from this author!
→ Love Spell — Anna-Marie McLemore ★★★★★ ←
La Virgen may be our Mother of grace and mercy, but She is also more mischief than our priests will ever admit.
When a bruja falls in forbidden love with an acolyte from the local cathedral, she can’t decide whether it’s fortune or tragedy that her tía has raised her with the knowledge for offering remedies to cure lovesickness. Not only am I a sucker for these angst-filled, starcrossed lover sorts of stories, but in Anna-Marie McLemore’s own-voice fashion, our protagonist is a girl falling in love with a trans boy, and the scenario is depicted so beautifully. I could just get lost in her lyrical prose for days, and never tire of it.
→ The Gherin Girls — Emery Lord ★★★★★ ←
What a wonder—love that powerful, but so careful to never break anything in its path.
I thought I wouldn’t be able to pick a favorite story from this collection until reaching this piece, but this is absolutely, hands down, my favorite. The three Gherin sisters take care of one another; in a family known for magic, they simply consider themselves “gifted”, but their capabilities are incredible and nurturing. The oldest, Nova, always knows exactly what food or drink will best comfort a person in that moment. The middle girl, Rosemary, tends to plants and all things green. The youngest, Willa, can detect a person’s entire range of emotions with a moment’s touch.
As the story switches perspectives, we get to learn about each of the girls in turn, like Nova’s bisexuality and her need to be recognized as queer, alongside her blossoming crush on a man she works with. Willa is a lesbian in love with her best friend, and then Rosemary is in the middle, and really, this story revolves around her most of all, because she’s recently escaped a terrible, emotionally abusive relationship, and none of the trio have quite recovered from her losses.
This story had my favorite representation of being a survivor of emotional abuse I have ever read in my life. I have read entire novels about abuse victims, and while many of them were incredible, none of them were so entirely, 100% me and my story as this one was. I just cried through most of this short story and wanted to spend chapter upon chapter nestled in the protective and understanding love Rosemary’s sisters had for her. On top of everything else, this entire depiction that these girls’ magical abilities were about comfort and love, not casting spells or curses, was so wonderful to me, because those are my witchy goals, too. I honestly cannot say enough about this story, or how badly I want to now read everything Emery Lord ever has or ever will write, just based on these few pages.
In my ARC, there is a Tristina Wright story here, but I won’t be reviewing it because it won’t be included in the final printed editions, so I didn’t think it was fair to count it into the average rating at the end.
→ Why They Watch Us Burn — Elizabeth May ★★★★★ ←
Every woman is never enough; she’s always too much. We angered someone, somewhere, for our too muchness. If to be too much is to be a witch, then I am a witch, and we are all witches.
Thirteen girls are taken to a lumber camp in the woods to pay penance for their “witchcraft”, or as you might more accurately call it, for accusing their sexual assailants of abuse. This entire story is a stunning metaphor for how society treats women who speak up, and it definitely is a punch to the gut in a few places. While Night, our narrator, is learning how to survive and to hold on to the righteous fury she holds for the man who hurt her, she is also falling in love with a beautiful Indian girl who helps her to remember that no amount of imprisonment or stoning can ever take away her power—and that is why the world is so terrified of “witchy”, angry women.
FINAL AVERAGE RATING: 4.6/5 STARS
This is easily the highest average score I’ve ever given to an anthology, and it is with no hesitation whatsoever that I’m rounding up to a solid 5 stars. I adored every moment of this collection and hope that it will get every ounce of the hype it deserves.
All quotes come from an advance copy and may not match the final release. Thank you so much to Harlequin Teen for providing me with this ARC in exchange for an honest review!