Today is my stop on the TBR & Beyond Tours for The Bitterwine Oath by Hannah West. Special thanks to Holiday House and the author for providing the ARC in exchange for an honest review!
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Goodreads: The Bitterwine Oath
Publication Date: 01 December 2020
Genre: Young Adult Mystery
Every fifty years, a cult claims twelve men to murder in a small Texas town. Can one girl end the cycle of violence – and save the boy who broke her heart?
San Solano, Texas is a quaint town known for its charm, hospitality, and history of murder. Twice now, twelve men have been brutally killed, and no one knows who did it. A shadowy witch? A copy-cat killer? Or a man-hating murderess? Eighteen-year-old Natalie Colter is sure that the rumors about her great-great-grandmother’s cult of wronged women are just gossip, but that doesn’t stop the true crime writers and dark tourism bloggers from capitalizing on the town’s reputation. It’s an urban legend that’s hard to ignore, and it gets harder when Nat learns that the sisterhood is real, and magical. And they want her to join.
The more Nat learns of the Wardens’ supernatural history, the more she wonders about the real culprits behind the town’s ritualistic murders. Are the Wardens protecting San Solano from even darker forces? As the anniversary of the murders draws near, the town grows restless. Residents start getting “claimed” as this year’s planned victims, including Levi Langford, the boy whose kiss haunted Nat for a year.
Nat knows that no one is safe. Can she and the sisterhood stop the true evil from claiming their town?
Hannah West is the author of young adult books including The Nissera Chronicles series and The Bitterwine Oath. She’s been writing fantasy since kindergarten, when she penned her first tale about a princess who ran away and lived at the top of a flagpole with two loaves of bread. But it wasn’t until she studied abroad in Orléans, France during college that the premise for her first novel materialized. The fairy tale castles, the snowy winter days, and a Disney princess pencil that arrived in a care package from her parents provided the inspiration that allowed her to wrangle all her untold and unfinished stories into a novel. Hannah currently lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two rambunctious rescue dogs.
Note: The quotes below are taken from an advanced/unfinished copy and are subject to change in the final version.
“This didn’t start with magic, hon, […] it started with darkness in men’s hearts.”
This is the kind of book about witches, supernatural horrors and basically all the scary things that go bump which I’d normally stay away from, but the mystery aspect in the synopsis was too intriguing for me to resist! While the story ended up being quite different to what I expected, I have to say that I really enjoyed it! There were some elements that could’ve been done better but overall, I’m so glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone to read this!
I first picked this up and tried to read it at night but immediately had to stop because, nope. It was too creepy for this chicken to continue reading in the dead-of-night! This was a very atmospheric read. With San Solano, West establishes an incredibly eerie setting with abandoned and allegedly haunted locations that lends itself well to the town’s bloody and disturbing history and lore surrounding Malachi Rivers and “her cult of demonic and murderous witches”. I’d never heard of the term ‘dark tourism’ before but I found the concept used for this town to be morbidly fascinating!
“After palming away another tear, she clapped her hands together and recited, with hand motions, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, lock the doors, and kill all the people.” She laughed hysterically. I’d seen enough horror movies that the subversive nursery rhyme made goose bumps prickle down my legs”
Nat is our main character and I thought that she was realistic and her reactions to the whole situation was very believable. There was a maturity to her character, as well as the ‘main’ side characters, which I really appreciated. I find with YA sometimes the focus tends to stray and the plot devolves into dramatics, but this one really sticks true to the horrifying legend and mystery. I liked that we learned about The Matrons, the truth about the original Pagans of the Pine, and of course, Malachi, right alongside Nat. It felt like a natural reveal and although there’s a lot to learn about the different witches and how magic works, it never felt like info dumping. I do wish that we got to see Nat using her magic more though because we do see the other witches use it throughout the story but not really from her, and I think it would’ve aided in her character’s transformation.
That said, one of my favourite aspects of the story was how fierce The Wardens were and the “supernatural girl gang” vibes that I got from them! I loved these powerful, kick ass women and how they used magic and weapons to slay grotesque demons to keep their town safe! One thing that did annoy me a bit was how Nat very quickly became a sure-shot gunslinging heroine. She might’ve been close enough to being ‘the chosen one’ in this story but it was unbelievable that she became pro at shooting and fighting the supernatural after one short training session. 🤔
“The gravity of the stakes was more apparent than ever. This was a war of shadow and soul.”
What I was surprised to be invested in was the romance! It doesn’t take over the story and so it doesn’t get explored much, but I still found it really sweet. The “Other Side of the Shade” poem really made me go ‘aw’ and I loved it so much! Although I couldn’t get much of a read on Levi at the start, I did end up really rooting for him, and them, in the end 🥰
The reason I’m not giving this a higher rating is because although I really enjoyed it, I found the pacing could’ve been better. The start was slower as we learn about the witches, the town’s history, and Nat’s connection to all of it, but when the action really started, the time skips were faster and I found that the climax and ending suffered a bit from it. It wasn’t exactly an unsatisfying conclusion but it ended quite abruptly and was followed by an epilogue that I found a little… Eh 🤷🏻♀️. There was also an issue with believability relating to the magic that was used to keep all the townspeople and tourists unaware of everything that was happening; it felt a little too unrealistic particularly during the climax.
“It was a strange paradox, to be dreading something imminent while feeling anxious to put it behind us. It made the next few hours feel too short and too long at the same time.“
TL;DR: Overall, this was a great YA mystery with many elements of supernatural horror, a fair bit of witchy magic, and a small dose of romance! Nat was a really likeable MC and it was easy to root for her (and her romance)! While I wish the ending wasn’t so abrupt, I had such a good time reading this that I finished it in a day because I simply couldn’t put it down. If you love a supernatural YA mystery set a small town with strong female characters, I’d definitely recommend checking this out!
Have you read The Bitterwine Oath or is it on your TBR?