Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Born Wicked High Res Cover

Cahill Witch Chronicles #1, Putnam, 2012, 330 pgs.

When Cate Cahill’s mother died, she told her to watch over her sisters. To keep the three of them together, to make sure they were safe, and, most importantly, to keep the secret that all three are witches. Because everyone knows what the Brotherhood does to girls who are witches. It’s something they get told every Sunday at the parish, where the preachers rail against the moral frailty of women. In New England only the good girls, the girls who stick to dresses and parties, who get married or devote themselves to religion live without suspicion. So, in the intervening years since her mother’s death, Cate has devoted herself to keeping her sisters out of the spotlight in order to keep their secret, unwittingly marking them as outcasts in the process. But, as her seventeenth birthday approaches, that antisocial reputation becomes a problem. Soon she’ll have to make a choice between marriage and the Sisterhood. Cate has no suitors and no desire to join an organization that would imprison her if they found out what she is. If she wants a chance at a life she’s willing to live, she’ll have to learn to navigate the intricacies of town society, and her own feelings as well. It doesn’t help that her mother never told her about the prophecy.

Forewarning: Spoilers for Book 1

 

One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is Protagonist Centered Morality. As, naturally, an outside observer to any sort of emotional situation in narrative it’s hard for me to fully put myself in one character’s shoes. I’m usually, at least, a semi-objective watcher of the events, and it takes a character that I deeply resonate with to get beyond that.

So, any sort of hint that an author is either not noticing or flatly ignoring their characters’ flaws is guaranteed to sour even the most compelling, well-built novel for me. It won’t necessarily ruin it, but even in things I like it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This book wouldn’t have been my sort of thing anyway, and I probably would have been able to write it off as just that. If not for that fact that, towards the end of the book Cate, the main character, does something so hypocritical, so counter to the way her narrative has run through the rest of the novel, that it breaks the entire thing for me.

Let me explain.

You’ve probably gotten from the summary that the setup here is fairly puritanical: oppressive patriarchy leads to no rights for women, few, crappy options for the way their lives are going to go, and religious interference in everything. You can marry someone who proposes to you, have a husband chosen for you, or become a nun, and that’s it. If you happen to be a witch, which seems to be an inborn trait here, you’re probably going to end up dead or insane.

So Cate lives in this world where she has very few choices for what her life is going to be, both because of her country’s social rules and because of the secret she’s trying to keep. The Brotherhood will send her to prison if they find out what she is and will force her into a marriage she doesn’t want if they don’t.

The Sisterhood, this world’s nuns, who turn out to actually be witches working under the Brotherhood’s nose, seem at first like a possible avenue for escape. Unfortunately, when it’s revealed that Cate, Maura, and Tess are the subjects of a prophecy foretelling a trio of sisters who could give the witches back political power, the Sisterhood proves just as willing to forcibly control others as their male counterparts.

Cate has only one socially acceptable option that she actually wants, marrying the second of her suitors, Finn, but his financial situation and the Sisterhood’s interference make it unfeasible. So, not unjustifiably, our lead here spends a good chunk of the book complaining about having no say in her own life, so much so that it seems that the need for choice is one of the main themes of the novel.

But.

While Cate is bemoaning her own lack of control, she’s also happily cutting off options from her middle sister, Maura. Maura says she wants to join the Sisterhood, and Cate tells her no. Maura tells Cate she wants to see the world instead of being stuck in a small town, and Cate tells her they need to stick together. Maura states that she’s never going want a husband, and Cate tells her she’ll change her mind. Maura revealing that she’s a lesbian puts Cate off from that one only so much.

Now, I understand that some of this is meant to be protective. Cate rightly thinks the Sisterhood are attempting to bring her sisters under their sway in order to use them. Maura is being slightly foolish here, but she’s also very obviously reacting badly to Cate’s meddling. She accuses Cate of not listening to her several times, and that’s true.

Cate may be trying to do what she thinks is right and keep her sister from a mistake, but that’s not something anyone actually gets to choose for anyone else. Just look at the villains of this book. The Brotherhood is trying to force people to walk a pious path in order to save their souls, and they’ve become tyrannical for it. The Sisterhood is trying to keep our three leads from getting themselves imprisoned for the good of all witches, and by doing this they’re keeping Cate from a life she wants.

Freedom means the freedom to make your own mistakes, and that’s just as true for Maura as it is for Cate.

This situation ends with Cate ejecting the emissary from the Sisterhood, Maura’s friend, potential lover, and chance for a life she wants, out of their house, keeping her sister from deciding for herself. Maura, heartbroken, loses control of her magic and puts all three of them in danger. For the rest of the novel Cate blames Maura fully for this, refusing to even talk to her.

Now, in the book Cate has lost control of her magic several times before, also putting them in danger, but nobody has ever held it against her. And if Cate had handled the situation with Maura with any sort of grace, or even just talked to her sister instead of giving orders, this might not have happened. Instead, she decides she hates her sister, who is very much the manipulated victim in all of this, over something that she herself has done, because of a situation that she helped create, by doing the same thing to Maura the rest of the world has done to her.The only people to ever say anything to her about this are the villains, for entirely the wrong reasons.

Cate is exactly the same thing she’s trying to fight against, and unfortunately the narrative never seems to realize that. Looking up the summaries for the next two, it really seems like the series is never going to realize that.

This might have been mitigated if anything else about the book had been a little more compelling. The characters are mostly one-note, though, with the author actively squandering the few that I found interesting, and the plot is a pretty standard love triangle, complete with obvious answer as to which boy is going to be chosen. Any sort of feminist commentary it makes is so clunky and on the nose as to almost be cliché.

There are some interesting inversions in the worldbuilding; the sisters mention how much they envy Arab women’s freedom, for example, but that’s about it. On most levels this is perfectly generic.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing in genre fiction, and I’m probably being harder on this book than it deserves. If the cognitive dissonance isn’t going to bother you, the novel’s really more passable than anything. For me, though, I feel like that’s all it gave me.

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