My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a bit of a hard book to review. I liked it, but it was frustrating at times. The characters, especially the protagonist Immanuelle Moore, had a nice arc, the pacing was good, and the prose overall had good quality. But there were definite flaws in the worldbuilding, and while I was able to more or less overlook them in the end, those flaws remained.
At the same time, given the initial setup, those flaws were just about unavoidable. This is a book with a tight, claustrophobic focus on a religious cult, the surrounding community, and the Darkwood, where the antagonist Lilith's witch coven resides. The followers of the Prophet have nothing to do with the outside world, by design. There are hints that this is possibly a post-apocalyptic or post-climate-change future, and Bethel is established as being a thousand years old. "Heathen cities" are named and mentioned, but none of our characters go there. (Although the levels of technology are inconsistent and erratic and make me wonder if they have, or have had, trade with said cities in the recent past--where'd they get all the paper for the hundreds of books in the Prophet's library, for example?) The story has supernatural elements, which come slashing their way to the fore in the bloody climax. But the book as a whole has a decided contemporary tone, even with the witches and Immanuelle's display of supernatural power at the end. The cult of the Prophet borrows from Puritanism, the Salem witch trials, and the early history of the LDS church, given the polygamy and abuse of women and girls.
This vague, inconsistent worldbuilding was rather frustrating to me, but at the same time I saw how the story demanded it. This is a book about a patriarchal, misogynistic cult and the deconstruction thereof, exploring the mentality of the men who rule in said cult and the women who are prisoners of it. No one comes to rescue these women: our protagonist must learn to deprogram herself and save her family and love, as well as the community of Bethel. This is definitely a part of her character arc, her refusal to run and leave her community to its fate, no matter how much some of the characters (and even the reader, on occasion) may think Bethel deserves it. Looking at it from that standpoint, the "outside world" is irrelevant. If I want to know more about the overall society...well, that will just have to wait, I suppose, for the sequel. (Although this is a fairly self-contained story; a sequel doesn't really seem necessary.)
Having said all this, the reader's mileage will definitely vary. For the most part, I was able to put this aside and it bugged me less the further I got into the book. This is the author's first book, and I think she's a writer to watch. If she does better with the worldbuilding next time around, her stories will be forces to be reckoned with.
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