A Spooky, Witchy Reading List to Kick off Scary Season
Fire Lyte Recommends the Classics in Magic and Covens and Spells
Witches have always been a bit of figment and fact, appearing in some way in every culture and throughout history. They’ve been said to have supernatural healing abilities, calling back loved ones, precious livestock, and near-barren lands from the brink of demise. Further still they’ve crossed the threshold between this world and the next to summon, speak to, or even command the dead. In recent years they are the subject of comic book movies and television shows where their powers are only limited by the budget of the special effects department.
No matter whether the witch is something more than human or as mortal as the rest of us, for many people, these stories spark an interest in magic that never quite goes away. I’ve gathered together 9 stories of witches, a coven of stories if you will, that encompass the history of the witch through time and how these stories are thriving in the modern era.
Madeline Miller, Circe
(Back Bay Books)
Madeline Miller’s 2019 masterpiece features history’s first witch, the eponymous Circe. She’s presented as a relatively minor goddess who likely would have been relegated to a footnote in a Classics textbook somewhere except for the fact that she realizes her power doesn’t lie in carrying the sun across the sky like her father Helios, but in the hidden magic and medicine of plants. Miller’s prose is at once familiar and romantic while always teetering on the edge of ripping the reader’s heart out, which is my very favorite kind of book.
Signe Pike, The Lost Queen
The Lost Queen puts a magical spin on a nearly forgotten story of a very real queen from history, Languoureth, who ruled in sixth-century Scotland. She is the twin sister of the man who went on to inspire the legend of Merlin, but that isn’t the only magical tie in the book. Languoureth allies herself with a woman whose strength and magic forever change the course of her life. If you have been pining to go back to Camelot but want a fresh take on the legend, this trilogy will hit all the right spots.
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
One cannot make a list of witches in literature without mentioning the work of the late, great Terry Pratchett. Witches Abroad is part of Pratchett’s Discworld series and the third of the books to focus on witches. Granny Weatherwax and friends provide a hilarious journey through the nature of stories and how the most powerful magic of all might just be psychology…er… headology. You will never look at a game of poker quite the same way again.
Katherine Howe, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
This book is many things. It is a mystery surrounding a curious book that may or may not contain the recipes for real magic. It is a story of self-discovery and diving into one’s own family history. It features multiple delicious library settings. And, it is the story of the witch who got away from Salem and what happened to her daughters.
Alice Hoffman, Magic Lessons
(Simon & Schuster)
If you’ve read many books about witches, you’ve undoubtedly come across the Owens family at the heart of Alice Hoffman’s iconic series of books that began with Practical Magic. Many real life witches and magical practitioners trace their interest back to the 1998 movie adaptation which begins with a scene in which Maria Owens, the matriarch and first witch of the Owens line, is set to be hanged in Salem. Until, of course, magic happens. Magic Lessons is the story of Maria, and if you have any interest in the magic of apple pie or speaking to ravens, this book is a must-read.
Marilynne K. Roach, Six Women of Salem
(Da Capo Press)
Indulge me for a moment as I diverge from this list of fantasy and historical fiction to mention Marilynne K. Roach’s brilliant non-fiction account of the witch trials of Salem. Centering six women at the heart of the trials and leaving no stone unturned, if you have ever been interested in the intersection of the facts and fiction of witchcraft, this feverishly readable book is an excellent starting point.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall, The Mermaid The Witch and the Sea
This book features queer pirates, blood-drinking mermaids, a runaway royal, and a witch whose magic is one of the most unique forms of spell casting I’ve seen in recent years. Maggie Tokuda-Hall presents an inclusive narrative in a sea-faring world that doesn’t center either whiteness or cisgender heteronormativity. As with Pratchett, Tokuda-Hall tells the reader that the most powerful magic is stories, especially the ones we tell about ourselves.
Aiden Thomas, Cemetery Boys
I am a sucker for a gay ghost, and Thomas’ story about a young transgender brujo’s journey to acceptance by his family and community features one of the sweetest, most tender queer romances I’ve ever read. This book joyously celebrates Latinx culture and provides an updated take on the tried and true trope of a family of magical practitioners taking on a dangerous threat.
Jessica Lewis, Bad Witch Burning
Lewis’ book is the most recent in this list, but it is easily one of the most profound. While firmly centering a story of a young witch discovering her power to speak to, and later summon, the dead, it is also a meditation on blackness in America, poverty, and the yearning to change one’s circumstance. Lewis’ character work is some of the best in modern fiction, and I for one cannot wait to see what is next from this new author.
The Dabbler’s Guide to Witchcraft by Fire Lyte is available now from Tiller Press.