Witches Steeped in Gold – Ciannon Smart

Quick note: this is the first book in this series. Book 2 review is also coming, but I read this one so I could review it first and also have a clue what was going on!

Iraya Adair has lived in a cell her whole life. Her dynasty of powerful witches overthrown, their magic stolen, she waits for the day when her exile ends. Then, she will take back what is hers.

Jazmyne Cariot is the daughter of the usurpers, rich with gold and magic. But her mother sees her as a threat to her reign. Jazmyne knows this, and has no desire to join the many sacrifices on the road to her mother’s dreams of power.

The two women need to work together to take down the usurper. It’s a shifting alliance; after all, how do you trust those brought up to believe you the enemy? But, they need to work together, or both will fail.

But trust the other? No way.

We meet Jazmyne first, and the resistance. Both of them are struggling to balance the need for the doyenne to shed less blood, and the fact that their magic–Alumbrar–is meant for healing, for learning. Not blood. Jazmyne is determined, and running mostly on blind faith because she doesn’t want her mother to die. She’s intelligent, but stubborn, and that streak comes out very plainly right away!

Then we meet Ira, in her cell, preparing. She has been patient for a decade, her magic inheritance stolen, and she needs to first get out, and second get it back. She believes the Obeah–those whose ancestral magic allowed them to rule, to lead–were the best thing ever. She has a fantasy of how things used to be, which is understandable given where she is. But, now she’s 18, she can finally inherit the magic…and then spend 20yrs in ‘compulsory service to the crown’. If everything could be how it was, she seems to believe, everything would be alright. Her worldview is going to be a problem.

The story is set in a world where Africa thrums with life (and magic), and Smart leaves us lots of big and little touches here and there, making it come alive. For example, the magic-havers seem to have silver hair, while those without have dark hair. Every hairstyle–braids, locks, afros, etc–has meaning. It might seem a small detail in the grander scale of things, but it adds depth. And a few more touches later, you have a world which lives on the page.

There’s a class war, between the different schools of magic. Obeah once led, but now Alumbrar, in the form of the doyenne, hold the power. So we enter the story as this class war, having slumbered for  a decade, rises again.

Caribbean-inspiration joyfully fills this book. It’s pulled in, woven together by someone with intimate and emotional knowledge of the culture, and it’s beautiful to read. The world is rich and packed, every detail thought out, to the point where I want to beg Smart for a full world guide!

Smart writes well–really well. If you want to put a book down without constantly counting the time before you can pick it up again, don’t choose this one.

If you like powerful but flawed female characters, a twisting, epic plotline, and a backdrop of beauty turning to ash as its history unravels–this will have you covered.

Queer character note: there is one lesbian already dead, another that we see once before she dies offscreen, and one that’s an important side character. But sexuality doesn’t seem like a big deal either, and there are hints of others, so it’s safe to assume there are plenty more lesbians, at least. No other queer folk tho, sadly.

Witches Steeped in Gold was released on April 20th, 2021. Order it at Amazon UK or US, or your favourite bookstore or library.

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