These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

“I’m standing here, telling you how much you hurt me, and you can’t hear it.”

These Witches Don't Burn Cover

Goodreads || B&N || Isabel’s Twitter

Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

4 STARS

CW: violence (including gun violence), underage drinking, gore, animal death, homophobia, wlw fetishization (challenged), domestic abuse, car crash, medical scenes, loss of a loved one

From the moment These Witches Don’t Burn was announced, I knew I was going to need it. A book featuring a bunch of sapphic witches? Elemental magic? Mounting danger? It’s basically everything I love in a story, all rolled into one novel!

And to no surprise, this absolutely delivered.

Following Hannah Walsh in the wake of her break-up with fellow Elemental witch Veronica, the town of Salem is starting to see the work of a Blood witch, and attacks against Elemental witches in the community are leaving Hannah more and more afraid for her life by the day. Add in the ever-present danger of being witnessed using magic by Regs, who don’t know witches still exist, and nothing is easy, especially not solving a series of deadly attacks before the next one happens.

Possibly my favorite thing, though, was just how genuine the queer rep was. Hannah is a self-described “huge lesbian,” her love interest is a bisexual girl, her ex is sapphic, and there are a host of side characters of varying queer identities, including older queer couples, another sapphic minor character, a trans boy who is slated to have a larger role in the sequel, and the use of inclusive language that doesn’t enforce a gender binary. Throw in a host of queer emotion (the euphoria of finding queer friends! the hurt of homophobia coming from people who loved you until you came out! the deep and wonderful feeling of being beloved and supported by friends and family!), and you end up with me almost crying at parts that weren’t necessarily intended to bring tears. Since this is told through Hannah’s eyes, it’s her queer experience that’s brought to the forefront, and it’s neither the doom and gloom experience some people thinking being queer is all about, nor is it some rosy, perfect existence. It’s COMPLICATED, and I adored that.

I also really, really loved the way Hannah’s relationship with Veronica was handled. They may be exes, but there is a whole host of emotions there that made my heart hurt. They still care about each other in some form or another, because they certainly can’t quite let go, especially with such terrible danger at hand. At the same time, their relationship was TOXIC. Veronica was controlling and didn’t listen to what Hannah wanted, and sometimes still doesn’t. Nothing about the way they interface with each other can be simple given the dangers that are in Salem right now, and to top it off, I actually really liked that we got examples of healthy and unhealthy queer relationships in this book. It just feels so much more real, so much more nuanced and human.

Another relationship I loved was the one between Gemma and Hannah. Gemma is Hannah’s best friend, and while she’s maybe a little overenthusiastic, she’s also so much a ride or die friend. She supports Hannah at every turn, and there’s one particular pinch point that almost had me crying because Gemma put her foot down and stood up for Hannah with no questions asked, not putting up with the homophobia in the room for even a minute.

Really, there were only a couple things about These Witches Don’t Burn that I wasn’t 100% on board with. The first one was the pacing, because while the plot was engaging and fresh, it was constantly moving forward at a breakneck pace, and I really needed a breather. I can think of only a couple scenes that dialed it back to a reasonable pace to let the characters (and me!) breathe, but it otherwise charged forward with no space for rest and contemplation.

There were also some plot points that I felt were either under or over-utilized. Hannah’s previous experience with Blood witches and her break-up with Veronica were pushed into the narrative a little clumsily, as they happened before the book began and didn’t have as direct a connection with the antagonists of the plot that I was anticipating. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the breakneck pace of the book also meant some of the elements of danger felt reused, adding an element of predictability to the story.

Taken as a whole, though, I think These Witches Don’t Burn was a delightful read, packed with all kinds of emotion and queer experience that brought me joy, and based around a plot that was, for the most part, enjoyable and engaging. I may have needed to slow down now and again and reconsider the pace and the significance of the elements included, but it was still a great read in the end, and certainly one with the perfect spooky October flavor!

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