‘The Very Secret Society Of Irregular Witches’ by Sangu Mandanna – highly recommended

‘The Very Secret Society Of Irregular Witches‘ was a great comfort read. I settled into it like sinking into a favourite armchair. From the first page, I knew I was in the hands of a writer with a distinctive voice and an engaging storytelling style. And yet, it wasn’t the book I’d expected it to be.

From the synopsis and the cover, I was fairly sure I knew what I was getting into: a light, frothy book about and training very young witches, with a little bit of romance thrown in. I can see that it could be read that way but it misses both the point of the book and the source of its charm, which comes from its individuality. It resists clichés. It doesn’t so much twist tropes as by-pass them. It is comfortable being itself.

It isn’t light and frothy. It is optimistic and uplifting. Our heroine, Mika Moon, is attracted to the curmudgeonly male lead but this isn’t a RomCom. Mika is too grown-up and too pragmatic for that. It is about training young witches but the focus isn’t on the spells or the lessons but on helping three young girls to be comfortable with who they are.

It seemed to me that what drove the book was an understanding of what it means to feel not just excluded from the mainstream life around you but to feel that to reveal who you are would put you ad the people around you at risk. Mika and the other witches in this story are faced with a choice: do choose safety and survival by living alone, never attracting attention and never sharing who they really are or do they share their lives and their gifts with each other and with their loved ones and risk making themselves and those that they care about a target?

Mika is an orphan who has always lived alone. She has been taught that isolation and secrecy are essential to her survival. Then she accepts the task of teaching three young girls how to use their magic, even though having so many witches in one place is likely to draw attention. For the first time, she finds herself being part of a household and she begins to ask herself if surviving is enough.

The plot was elegantly structured. It kept the action moving forward, created a series of crises for Mika to respond to and kept me guessing about how on earth Mika was going to sort things out.

I liked that there was tension but not enough of a sense of threat to darken the tone of the book. I liked that the three young girls were so different to one another, so easy to believe in and so central to the story. I liked that, although there was conflict between the witches, they weren’t polarised into good or bad, just shown as making a different assessment of the balance between risk and reward. Most of all, I liked that, although this was a story about identity and community in the face of difference and exclusion, it always felt like a personal, relatable story and never like a tract.

Sangu Mandanna did a great job of using humour to lighten the mood without diminishing the problems being faced. Mika felt real to me. The conversations she had with the girls and her fellow witches felt natural and authentic even when they were talking about magic.

I finished the book with a smile on my face both because the book was so good and because I now have a new author to follow.

If you decide to try ‘The Very Secret Society Of Irregular Witches’, I strongly recommend the audiobook version. Samara MacLaren’s narration was a pleasure to listen to. She brought all of the characters to life and perfectly captured the tone and pace of the novel. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

Sangu Mandanna  was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. 

Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. 

Sangu now lives in Norwich, a city in the east of England, with her husband and kids.

Samara MacLaren is a writer, actor and narrator.

She was part of the BBC’s 2018 Drama Rom Scheme and was selected as one of the BBC’s Scottish Voices for 2019.

Her debut play, Ailsa Benson is Missing premiered at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival and was shortlisted for the Scottish Theatre Awards and a Filipa Braganca Award.

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