Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood is a book that suffers from not one, but two unfortunate covers and a very vague-sounding summary, so I didn't pick it up earlier because frankly, I like shiny book covers and a sound notion of what I'm getting myself into. But a friend insisted Born Wicked was great, so I started reading and at about page two it clicked that it was alternate history with witches and I was SO on board. And luckily for me, since I was so late to the game, I got to read all three books in a row!
Cate Cahill is the oldest of three girls, and a witch. When her mother was alive, being a witch was easier. Cate didn't worry so much about her younger sisters Maura and Tess and the religiously fanatical Brotherhood trying them all for witchcraft. But the girls are growing up and change is inevitable; Cate must declare her intention to marry or enter a convent, and her sisters need a governess--a stranger who might easily discover their secret. Cate is all too happy to suppress her powers if it means keeping her sisters safe, but Maura disagrees. Maura is a little too confident and reckless, and Cate's caution and constant limits causes a rift in the sisters' relationship. And if an old prophecy is to be believed, this rift indicates that the Cahill sisters are capable of either sparking an enlightened era...or regressing society back to the Dark Ages.
Let's talk premise. I love, love, love it. Alternate history, witchcraft, and STAKES. So much is at stake in these books--the relationship between the three sisters, their lives, their entire way of living! Spotswood sets this up so, so well. She begins with the sisters' lives in their small town, and slowly expands the story to include other local girls who are oppressed by the Brotherhood, a resistance, family secrets, the effects of the prophecy, and she throws in a surprisingly swoony love interest in the form of gardener Finn Belastra to keep things hot.
The world building is skillfully done. The ruling religious order was eery and very realistic. Sexism is maddeningly strong in the Cahill sisters' lives, but the women, witches or not, are certainly not passive. The nuances of how women rebel against this sexism were fascinating, and drew me in completely. I loved the cultural diversity that Spotswood envisions in her alternate world; racial and ethnic diversity is strong, and acknowledged. Other countries are much more progressive than religious New England, and you can sense the desire for this society to grow and evolve even under all of the Brotherhood oppression.
This book moves briskly, with a few inevitable (but delightful!) twists that poke fun at traditional Chosen Ones tropes. The sisters disagree and grow alarmingly more estranged, leading them to make life-changing decisions in order to preserve their secrets. The momentum of the plot takes the reader right up to the cliffhanger ending, so be warned--you'll want Star Cursed on hand the moment you finish!
Book purchased at my indie.