As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos “pretending” to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.
But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.
As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….
Publication details: 23 August 2022, by Hodder & Stoughton. Review copy provided by the publisher.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is a charming book that got me thinking a lot about the value of comfort reads and how much the timing of when we read a book influences our experience.
It tells the story of Mika Moon, a talented but lonely witch who finds herself summoned to a mysterious, remote house to tutor three young girls for whom the lack of social connections within the witch community isn’t just isolating, but leaves them with little idea how to control their magical abilities. From the get-go, it’s impossible not to like Mika; Mandanna has a wonderfully assured voice that makes Mika leap off the page, and comes with lots of wry observations about the world in which Mika lives. It’s also hard not to relate to Mika, who feels emotionally unfulfilled despite her talents, and is frustrated by her peers’ lack of willingness to contemplate any other possibilities beyond doing what they have always done. There’s also some very cool bits of magic, and I loved how Mika used her creativity to brighten up her everyday life.
I don’t like to compare books, but there are a lot of similarities to other cozy fantasies that have become SFF darlings in recent years; T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea is the most obvious comp title, but there are plenty of others. In some ways, Mandanna offers something new among these titles – most notably, Mika is an orphan from India and the book touches briefly on the ethical dilemmas of raising a non-white adoptee in Britain, in a genre that has often been more focused on other forms of diversity. But it mostly retreads a lot of the same ground, pulling out commonplace platitudes about the power of friendship, family and love.
There’s nothing wrong with that; god knows we have all needed a slightly saccharine escape from the reality of our world during the last few years. But unlike in 2020, when I devoured cozy fantasy and was in such desperate need of something lighthearted that I didn’t mind if a book lacked a certain level of depth, it’s not what I needed right at this very second. I still don’t want to look too closely at the state of society right now, but I am no longer trapped in my own house for hours on end and clinging to books as my main source of company. The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches does have a number of flaws, and while I mostly enjoyed the book, it was hard not to notice them.
In particular, there isn’t a lot of character growth even for Mika, who is lonely but who slides into her new world without the slightest bit of friction. For example; Mika has no experience with kids and voices some trepidation about her role as tutor, but these worries seem to abate the moment she steps into the house and we never see her genuinely struggle with how best to help her own charges. Similarly, the side characters are all very one note, and mostly there to offer life lessons and dispense wisdom and/or jokes as needed. The love interest, Jamie (the grouch of this ‘grumpy/sunshine’ pairing), gets a little more development than most, but it’s largely relayed as back story rather than a meaningful part of their romantic relationship.
This is one of those books that, had I read it while feeling particularly down about the state of the world, I probably would have given 5 stars without hesitation. But, as it stands, it’s a mostly enjoyable read, yet ultimately a little cliched and in need of some greater depth.