Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft – Book Review

Fifteen authors contributed to this anthology with fifteen stories that were definitely hit-or-miss. Some were good, whereas others made me wonder how they were included without some serious changes. I hope I don’t come off as too snarky in this review. I know writers work hard, whether they’re writing novels or short stories, but I can’t not be honest.

Rather than sharing my overall thoughts like I would for a novel, I’m reviewing each story because I want to discuss them and enjoy torturing myself. Seriously, this post is long. Send help.

Starsong by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Although I don’t think this was the best story for the beginning, it at least had a cute ending. The main character, Luna, made me roll my eyes at times. She’s angsty and a bit arrogant, seeming to think of herself better than others (and she has the Instagram to boot). I know she’s a teen, but ugh. At least she’s willing to give spiritual guidance to some people in need, I suppose.

Some of these girls are into that raccoon-rings, mascara-tracks, nervous-breakdown-chic look, but I have a reputation to uphold.

Luna, reminding us of her reputation

Overall, it wasn’t bad. The ending was nice, like I said, and the imagery of Luna working her magic was quite beautiful. She partied and took drugs and was hospitalized for it, and now she’s given up that life in favor of reconnecting with her innate spirituality. She does throw around some heavy astrological terms, so if you know nothing beyond horoscopes, prepare to Google.

Rating

2 and a half full moons out of 5

Afterbirth by Andrea Cremer

This tale begins with a fatal childbirth. Yeah, I was a little reluctant to keep reading, but I’m glad I did because it turned out to be an interesting and bittersweet story. It takes place in 1650 and reminded me of The Crucible. Deliverance, the main character (yes, that is her name), is an aspiring midwife who tries to help the woman in labor… deliver. Oh, I get it now. Um, anyway, some people believe that the Devil is afoot because (insert spoiler here) happens, and Deliverance has to make a difficult choice.

Rating

5 full moons out of 5

The Heart in Her Hands by Tess Sharpe

Screw fate! That’s what Bettina says. Bettina is my kind of protagonist: reasonably defiant and values freedom over tradition. She was born into a family of witches whose soulmates are decided by “Lady Fate,” but she’s determined to break free of her predestined chains and remain with Auggie, her girlfriend. The consequences of defying the Lady are pretty harsh, but luckily the protagonist is as stubborn as she is clever.

Rating

5 full moons out of 5

Death in the Sawtooths by Lindsay Smith

This was an interesting little horror story. Mattie, the protagonist, was basically chosen by Xosia, the goddess of death, to be a corpse whisperer. She derives the last wishes from the deceased to pass on to their friends and/or families. The people of the Sawtooths, however, don’t take kindly to Mattie’s line of work. They fear what they don’t understand (and because of a certain incident that only reinforced their fear), although I can’t blame them. It’s bad enough that they have to die, but having to look forward to some deity owning your soul? *spiritual anarchism intensifies*

Anyway, the High Coven is in need of Mattie’s services because there’s a mysterious problem that quickly turns into a major one. The idea really was fascinating and I think it could make a great book on its own, especially if it were to deal with questions of life, death, and humanity.

As long as the people of the Sawtooths are in love with life, they’ll always dread Xosia’s coming.

Mattie, promoting antinatalism

Oh, wait. Never mind:

The Lady has no use for a life that hasn’t been lived in full.

It’s awfully vague, though. What exactly counts as a life lived in full? Take me, for example. I rarely leave home (especially now with the quarantine) because I just don’t have the interest or energy (or *coughs*friends*coughs*). My days are spent looking at a screen. To most people, this wouldn’t be considered living life to the fullest. To me, however, it’s enough because I’m just doing what I love (with the exception of work): writing, reading, blogging, watching movies/TV shows, listening to music, etc. I don’t need no death goddess tellin’ me I ain’t livin’ my life in full. *spits into a spittoon*

Ahem. Moving on.

Rating

4 and a half full moons out of 5

The Truth About Queenie by Brandy Colbert

Ugh, this story dragged. It had more telling than showing, mostly because there wasn’t much to show. Basically, Queenie is in love with her semi-famous skateboarding best friend, Webb, except he meets someone else on the road. Then an accident happens and it’s up to Queenie to fix it because she has the power to heal, even though she’s never practiced applying it before. Her mother discouraged the family from practicing and “Big Queenie,” her witchy aunt, never bothered to reach out. Yet, she calls her aunt about it and is told that all she needs to do is believe in herself? MEH.

I did think Webb was a cool dude until he pressured Queenie about fixing the aftermath. Bruh, she might’ve accidentally killed—or at least unintentionally contributed to killing—one of your childhood friends, and how often has she cast major spells that were successful? And now you want her to WHAT?

I probably would’ve given this story an extra full moon if Queenie, Webb, and his girlfriend found a happy polygamous ending. But no, it just couldn’t stand out from all the other stories with love triangles.

Rating

1 full moon out of 5

The Moonapple Menagerie by Shveta Thakrar

This… was quite the trip. I liked the Indian-inspired setting, but the plot wasn’t easy to follow. It almost seemed as if this were the author’s first attempt at writing a story? The description was a bit much and the pacing was kind of wild. It also read more like MG than YA.

So, a group of friends are working on a play and Shalini, the writer, is suffering the good old block as well as imposter syndrome. Unable to come up with an ending, she casts a spell for help, but it’s basically an invitation for anything and she acts surprised when confronted with the undesirable result. Witchcraft 101, folks: be specific.

Also, I mean, if you have imposter syndrome, how would casting a spell for help make that any better?

I gotta give the author some credit for trying to be creative, at least, even if the story was as linear as an acid trip. I did kind of enjoy that surreal quality, and I also liked how the scenes in the play were magically simulated, making the whole thing real, in a sense. If only it had a good copyeditor before seeing publication.

Rating

1 and a half full moons out of 5

The Legend of Stone Mary by Robin Talley

Another interesting little tale of horror, but this one had a happier ending as well as a bit of sapphic romance (and it was a better love story than Serpent & Dove)! Many legends surround an old statue of a woman in the woods. The townspeople seem to have forgotten why it’s there, but Wendy hasn’t.

Because of how her family has distanced itself from the town, Wendy has always been an outsider. She’s managed to endure some awful people and make a few friends, though. On the night of Halloween, Wendy and her group decide to visit Stone Mary.

Wendy spends a chunk of the story reminiscing about the legend and her life with sprinklings of present-day events. The last few pages are more sequential. Most readers might not have a problem with this style of storytelling, considering it’s first-person and wasn’t hard to follow, but I’m just one of those writerly readers who can’t help but say, “Damn, wish I could clean all that up with a good editing.”

The ending was nicely subverted, in my opinion. Turns out pieces of the legends were true, but they don’t quite unfold as expected.

Rating

4 full moons out of 5

The One Who Stayed by Nova Ren Suma

A rather dark story that follows two POVs, Mirah’s and a witchy group of girls’. Mirah is supposed to meet a guy from school who promised to bring her to a party, except he told her to wait near the woods instead of at home. You could probably guess what actually happens when he shows up (rape).

Throughout the POV switches, the group speaks as a collective, touching on their origins and how they failed to recruit another girl in a delightfully spooky voice. They’re like the girls out of the The VVitch, dancing around a fire and whatnot, posting photos on Instagram with the hashtag “justwitchythings.” Yes, I’m kidding about that last part.

Mirah crosses paths with these witches, and although the outcome was predictable, the premise was decent.

Rating

3 and a half full moons out of 5

Divine Are the Stars by Zoraida Córdova

This was an okay story. Marimar, along with her cousin and the rest of her family, visits Rosa Divina, her grandmother whom she can’t seem to believe is dying. What was once her childhood home is no longer recognizable, and it has to do with Rosa and the family magic.

The moral of the story is basically that greed is bad and magic is all around us, especially in our roots. It was pretty cliche and I don’t have much else to say about it.

Rating

2 and a half full moons out of 5

Daughters of Baba Yaga by Brenna Yovanoff

This is a tale of a young witch learning to claim her power, but it would’ve been better if it weren’t only about revenge. Not because I’m a Neo-Wiccan or New Age hippie who thinks love and light saves all… because I’m not. It just doesn’t have a very healthy message, but even if it didn’t intend one, it’s still lacking in risks and consequences.

“Stony,” the nickname for our Slavic main character whose birth name isn’t easy for Americans to pronounce, tells her story as if she’s telling a series of mini stories. She jumps from one memorable event in her life to another, but I didn’t have a problem with this because it was consistent and built up to the end.

Stony gave me a chuckle at times. She’s cool and has a relatable voice, at least in the beginning. When she meets Harmony, another witch in her school, they discuss superpowers and Stony says this about invisibility:

But goddamn it, don’t you sometimes just want to move around in the world without everybody making a big thing about it?

So relatable.

There’s a group of boys that bully some students and one of them spreads a rumor about a girl. Stony didn’t think she would care about these daily injustices, but now they’re getting to her and she takes witchy action.

Stony’s idea of revenge was… WTF, to say the least. I thought she’d actually curse them, being a witch and all, but what she did wasn’t inconspicuous. Like, THE SCHOOL KNOWS. Witch tip: don’t let anyone suspect you’re the culprit, unless you want to be a target and risk your spells losing power. Every witch worth their salt knows this.

For the record, I’m okay with cursing if it’s absolutely justified, like in the case of rape or murder or some other serious crime against humanity. Also, if you’re sure that someone can’t be redeemed and will only continue to harm, curse away, I say.

Stuff like bullying, especially from kids who might look back on their past with guilt as adults, can be helped with binding, or a little hex that puts them in their victims’ shoes. It might also help to create a ritual that pushes them to face the issues that made them bullies, or to simply experience remorse and seek forgiveness. You don’t want to become the criminal and do something you’ll regret.

For any vegans or vegetarians, Stony is the daughter of a butcher and dissects a pig in class, so keep that in mind if you decide to read this one.

Rating

2 full moons out of 5

The Well Witch by Kate Hart

I was so close to DNF-ing this story, but I managed to get through it. Was it worth it, you ask? HAHA. No. This dragged even more than “The Truth About Queenie.”

To sum it up, a woman named Elsa lives in the middle of nowhere and is occasionally visited by lost men. Three new guys visit her in need of a place to stay for a while, which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be the worst idea. Thankfully, rape doesn’t happen, but this was just plain boring. It could’ve been real witchy at some point, if only the author had been more creative.

Rating

1 half full moon out of 5

Beware of Girls with Crooked Mouths by Jessica Spotswood

This story opens up with a prophecy, which was interesting, but dang, there was a lot going on at once. Jo is one of three witch sisters, each possessing a magical ability. Hers is seeing into the future. One thing I liked about her visions was that they happened in between places, such as stairs and doorways. Liminal spaces are significant in traditional witchcraft, so that was cool.

The Campbell witches have a cursed family history. Every woman carrying the name gives birth to daughters that have special powers. Only one of them survives to old age because another is destined to murder the unfortunate sisters. Jo has a vision where she and her sisters survive, but she has to do something rather awful in order to make it happen.

I found the story predictable, but by the end I could see how that was the point. It did leave me wondering, though: if there were no chance of a magical cure, why did the Campbell witches keep breeding? I mean, there were “herbs to prevent babies.” Kind of a no-brainer, and I’m sure they could’ve adopted if they really wanted kids. I can’t imagine knowing there’s such a horrible curse in your family and passing it on. Like, why would you do that?

Rating

3 and a half full moons out of 5

Love Spell by Anna-Marie McLemore

We begin this story with a girl who’s thirsting over a boy who’s feeding her a Christ cracker. No, I’m not joking. I’m not trying to be mean or anything, but… damn, girl. Not in church.

Anyway, the main character is a bruja, the Spanish word for “witch.” She works with her aunt to help the locals, specifically ridding them of lovesickness. The whole story basically revolves around the bruja and the acolyte and their forbidden love for each other. An unlikely couple is a cute idea, but the writing just made me uncomfortable at times.

But my tongue, still missing the taste of his, would not speak the words. There was not enough of him left in my mouth.

I’m not a fan of romance (and I don’t read erotica), so I’m probably just not the target audience for this particular story. Still, it didn’t really grip me and, in one scene, the bruja sleepwalks to her death until she’s saved right before it happens. Just straight up deus ex machina.

Rating

2 full moons out of 5

The Gherin Girls by Emery Lord

The Gherin sisters are similar to the Campbells, generational witches that possess an ability unique to each. Luckily, none are destined to murder, but I wasn’t as invested in them. Honestly, they were kind of robotic and I couldn’t easily tell them apart. Probably because the story was yet another drag for me and I ended up skimming.

Still, the sisters were close-knit. There was plenty of concern for Rosie, who got involved with an abusive guy. These witches were taught to wait for karma instead of use magic to punish injustice, but that appears to change. I’m giving this story an extra half of a full moon just for telling karma it’s too slow.

Rating

2 and a half full moons out of 5

Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May

At first, I thought this story took place in the 1600s. Then the main character mentioned the police and how she used to serve businessmen until being accused of witchcraft. This is a world where the witch trials never ended and men are all evil misogynists, apparently. Women are put to hard work (such as cutting down trees and building homes for men) and are just all-around abused.

Then, I realized something. This is The Handmaid’s Tale on steroids. And crack.

There’s really nothing amazing here. The main character is just telling you how horribly women are treated and how in love she is with one of them until her burning. The story is dressed up in pretty writing to mask how dull it actually is. Maybe it’s because I can’t buy into the setting. It’s too ridiculous and exaggerated for me.

Rating

1 half full moon out of 5

Overall Rating

2 and a half full moons out of 5

9 Replies to “Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft – Book Review”

  1. Great review, Elara, I love that your personality shines through in your posts. I’m definitely not going to pick up this one: not enough great stories. That’s the problem I’ve found with most anthologies and box sets, you have to wade through of lot mediocre and rubbish to find a pearl.

    1. Thanks, Flora! Yeah, this was my first anthology, but I might’ve found a better one titled Robots vs. Fairies. I read a friend’s review and I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing the book myself!

      1. It’s always a bit more encouraging if someone you know has reviewed the book that you’re interested in reading. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Robots vs Fairies.

  2. Elara!!! Your new blog colors are witchylicious (my friend the broom is gone, but Ms. Witch and I have already introduced each other and I think we shall be friends as well).

    THIS BOOK!!! I read it some time ago and didn’t know what to think of it! I’m so, SO happy to get to revisit it through your review. I presently have the post open in two tabs so I can read and comment more easily xD

    “I’m reviewing each story because I want to discuss them and enjoy torturing myself. Seriously, this post is long. Send help.” … I feel your pain. Thank you for your bravery and all the time you put into this. For real.

    “I don’t need no death goddess tellin’ me I ain’t livin’ my life in full. *spits into a spittoon* Ahem. Moving on.” I’m laughing so hard my stomach hurts.

    Just dropping here that your moon rating is so cool.

    “The Moonapple Menagerie” was… ?? You said it so well.

    Ah, shucks, I was excited about Serpent and Dove.

    Totally with you on “The One Who Stayed”.

    “Then, I realized something. This is The Handmaid’s Tale on steroids. And crack.” I’m on the floor laughing.

    I loved your review ten times more than the book!!!

    1. ALICE!!! I love your comments so much, haha. I’m glad you like the new look and have befriended Ms. Witch!

      I appreciate your appreciation for my bravery. It is an honor to serve my readers and Ms. Witch is proud to have you as her apprentice. Yes, you are now her apprentice.

      Anyway, I was hoping this book would end with a decent story. “Why They Watch Us Burn” is a Goodreads favorite, but it wasn’t long before I had to stop reading and resist the urge to BURN the book.

      I was also excited about Serpent & Dove. It started with a bang that turned into a long, drawn-out fart and I had to DNF it because I couldn’t bear the smell. In other words, it committed all the book sins: “I’m not like other girls” protagonist, questionable black character name (“Coco,” I shit you not), religious appropriation (the Triple Goddess), transphobic beliefs, fat-shaming, ephebophilia… I could go on. It was also supposed to be set in medieval France, but the protagonist is a time traveler, I guess.

      I mean, I don’t want to keep anyone from reading anything. I just didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t enjoy it. It was a very bad book.

      ANYWAY, I’m happy to know that you enjoyed my review! I hope you can get back into reviewing soon because I miss your posts!

  3. THANK YOU for this review. I keep seeing this book and as a lover of all things witchy, I want to buy it and put it up on my shelf. But, I was so doubting the anthology piece. This helps a lot!

  4. Haha, each time I review an anthology, I start with a “Mixed bag” or “Hit-or-miss”. xD I think it’s always like that, and it’s because (My theory) some people with a reach (Authors and editors) try to push lesser known writers and/or their friends, among some fairly known writers’ stories. It’s a good practice, because you can discover a great new writer like that, but first you have to sort through the muck. xD I love your review and I’ll definitely read this one because it’s about witches. 😀 Also – “Spits into a spitoon” XD And “The Handmaid’s Tale on steroids” XDDD

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