Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made more money. Clients pay her to talk to their deceased loved ones, but it isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and Mom’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. Things get worse, when a ghost warns her to stop the summonings or she’ll “burn everything down.” Katrell is willing to call them on their bluff, though. She has no choice. What do ghosts know about eating peanut butter for dinner?
However, when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.
But magic doesn’t come for free, and soon dark forces are closing in on Katrell. The further she goes, the more she risks the lives of not only herself, but those she loves. Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty, or confront the darkness before it’s too late.
If you were living in poverty living with the constant anxiety of housing insecurity and you discovered that you not only could raise the dead but could sell your services for several thousand to bring someone’s loved one back, would you do it? This is a question that is asked again and again in Bad Witch Burning, Jessica Lewis’s dark and phenomenal debut. Bad Witch Burning may be the kind of story that pulls you right in and never lets you go, but it is also, unexpectedly emotionally-charged, heart-wrenching, and utterly devastating story that I loved.
The story follows a Black witch named Katrell who possesses the power to summon the ghosts of the dead. She sells her services to clients with lost loved ones, but it isn’t quite enough to keep the power on or pay the rent. One day, when Katrell accidentally raises someone from the dead, she realises that she can make a lot more money, thus offering her a chance for a new life. But, the more Katrell summons, the more she risks, and soon Katrell will be faced with a choice: turn away from her magic and live a life of poverty, or confront the darkness she has set in motion.
The synopsis of this story makes it sound like it’s an action-packed, heavily supernatural or fantastical story filled to the brim with magic, witches, and witchcraft. While the story does indeed have magic and a witch, I would better describe this story as more of a dark contemporary with witchy and magical elements. Or better yet, Bad Witch Burning to me reads like a story less about witches and magic, but rather an emotionally-charged novel that carefully and thoughtfully weighs and explores the choices of our morally-grey and flawed protagonist, Katrell, the implications of her choices, and what happens when the path forward is obstructed by, well, Katrell herself.
Key to the story is how the story honestly portrays the realities of poverty and living in an unsafe household. Despite selling her services to clients who want to speak to their dead loved ones and working after school at her part-time job, the money that she makes isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and her deadbeat and abusive new-boyfriend. Housing and food insecurity looms over Katrell’s life, wherein for her, school doesn’t matter because she can’t make money to survive while she’s at school.
A significant part of Bad Witch Burning is Katrell’s day-to-day survival, her motivation to make money, and doing the math and the constant question of whether it’s enough to make it to the next month, illustrating that housing instability and financial challenges are so all-encompassing, a relentless pull back to the present where imagining a future or anything beyond the next month is sometimes impossible. The story’s portrait of Katrell’s housing insecurity is heartbreaking, but it is a reality lived by so many and I appreciated how the story pulls you right in to Katrell’s thought process that you cannot help but understand why she makes the choices that she makes.
So when she discovers that she has the power to raise the dead? It isn’t just a lucrative opportunity for Katrell to make money, but it’s a chance of hope and a life beyond thinking about the next month. As Katrell begins to raise more people, she discovers that raising the dead has dark and terrifying consequences that she could have never imagined. I won’t delve into what those consequences are, but I can say that I read this way past my bedtime, but could not put this book down because I absolutely had to know what happened next, what would happen to Katrell, and what she would do next. Bad Witch Burning has high stakes in what feels like a no-win scenario that will leave you holding your breath – tense, fraught, and incredibly eerie and unsettling as well.
Katrell herself is also considerable highlight of the book. Across the story, Katrell makes decisions that readers will question, and at time she reads as an unreliable narrator, but that was why I found her to be such an engaging character. Though we may ‘disagree’ with the decisions that she makes or her actions, what I loved about the story is that Katrell isn’t perfect. She responds in anger at times – and who wouldn’t, with everything she carries on her shoulders? – she is in denial of the consequences of her choices, and she lashes out, but readers will also understand the place that she comes from. I thoroughly enjoyed Katrell’s character – a flawed yet absolutely relatable heroine who does what she can with the cards that she’s been dealt with. In ways, I felt that Katrell’s characterisation – a girl who is struggling, lost, utterly exhausted, and hurting – was a love letter to all other girls who feel the same way, and that they aren’t alone.
The relationships that Katrell has with her best friend, Will, and her mother are also highlights of the story. The two relationships here juxtapose each other – there’s Will, who loves and supports Katrell unconditionally and is honest with her, even when Will doesn’t like it, and then there’s Katrell’s mother, who is emotionally and financially abusive in subtle ways, despite Will’s daughterly love and loyalty to help her mother. Bad Witch Burning confronts challenging realities about the complexities of friendship and parental relationships, and I was left feeling heartbroken, sad, yet hopeful by the end.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
Bad Witch Burning is a dark, thoroughly brilliant, and thoughtful story about choices and consequences with a supernatural twist. Led by a flawed Black witch with a truly phenomenal character arc, Bad Witch Burning is a riveting and fresh perspective on witches and necromancy. I genuinely cannot wait to read what Jessica Lewis writes next – I think we’re going to be in for a ride.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A teen discovers that she can resurrect the dead and turns it into a lucrative business in an attempt to escape the cycle of poverty.
Perfect for: Readers looking for a unique witch book; readers looking for stories about Black girl magic; readers looking for stories that explore the complexities and nuances of being poor
Think twice if: You aren’t looking for something dark and heavy.
Genre: young adult supernatural
Trigger/content warning: death of an animal, abuse (emotional, physical, financial), death themes, parental neglect, gun violence