Today is my stop on the Sanctuary blog tour. Sanctuary is the first adult novel by V V James (who has written YA as Vic James), and I jumped at the chance to be sent a gifted copy so I could read it early. Described as Big Little Lies meets The Craft, Sanctuary is a story of prejudice and secrets in an America where witchcraft is known and (mostly) openly practised.
Content warning for the book: rape, sexual assault of minors
The small Connecticut town of Sanctuary is rocked by the death of its star quarterback.
Daniel’s death looked like an accident, but everyone knows his ex-girlfriend Harper is the daughter of a witch – and she was there when he died.
Then the rumours start. When Harper insists Dan was guilty of a terrible act, the town turns on her. So was his death an accident, revenge – or something even darker?
As accusations fly and secrets are revealed, paranoia grips the town, culminating in a trial that the whole world is watching.
I really, really enjoyed Sanctuary. I wasn’t sure if I would or not, given that its focus isn’t really on the fantasy elements, but I raced through all 450 pages in a few hours and found myself unable to put it down. It’s a very timely book, inspired to some extent by the Me Too movement, but also using the town’s prejudice against witchcraft to examine other forms of prejudice, the consequences of blind faith and scapegoating.
Sanctuary starts with four women toasting their children’s graduation from high school. Sarah is the town’s witch and she’s tolerated more than loved, but that doesn’t stop everyone from coming to her when they need help with, say, a pesky gambling addiction, or when they’ve drunk too much the night before and need a hangover cure. Everyone has their secrets in Sanctuary, and Sarah knows most of them. The other three women are her coven and her closest friends, bound together by something that happened six years earlier. They’re not witches themselves, but they can lend their energies to Sarah to make her magic more effective. Their children are all around the same age, and have grown up together, but they no longer get on, although three of them are at the graduation party in a house across town. James manages to get a lot of information across in a very short time at the beginning of Sanctuary, without it ever feeling like an info dump. The gaps are filled in throughout the book, but the first two chapters set the scene very effectively, and made me want to know more about this small American town.
It must be said that none of the town characters are particularly likeable, even Sarah, who’s probably the best of them, and who we’re clearly meant to empathise with, but I like that in a book. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s good to see the flaws alongside the good because it makes the characters more relatable. Having three main point of view characters worked well for this too – Sarah, Abigail (the mother of the dead boy) and Maggie, the detective sent to Sanctuary to investigate the case. Hearing and seeing Abigail’s grief directly from her makes her actions understandable, at least at first. She’s utterly broken by what’s happened, and it’s natural that she’s looking for someone to blame. Would I go as far as she does in her quest for answers and revenge? I’d like to think not, but who knows how I might react when placed in that situation and handed the perfect scapegoat. I’d also like to mention how despicable her husband is, in oh so many ways. I won’t go into details so as not to spoil you all, but my god, he might be the second most loathsome character in the book.
My favourite character, though, was Maggie. The outsider brought in because Daniel’s death has to be investigated at a state level, Maggie is our way into the town. Seeing it from an outsider’s point of view is so different to the way its residents see it, and she quickly realises there’s more going on here than an accidental death, whatever everyone else might think. She’s also very much treated like an outsider, despite having previously been posted in Sanctuary. The police chief doesn’t like her much right from the get-go, but he likes her even less when she refuses to tie up the case quickly, and his officers actively hinder her investigation. No-one else in the town wants to talk to her either. It’s clear that Sanctuary is a town that looks after their own – if they fit in of course.
Possibly the thing I loved most about Sanctuary was the way James tied in witchcraft and its acceptance (or not) in a plausible way. The persecutions of the 17th century still happened, the Salem witch trials still took place, but in this reality, witches used their magic to help America gain independence and began a (very heavily legislated) journey to rehabilitation and acceptance. The fear’s still there though, underlying most people’s surface tolerance of witches, and this becomes really obvious, really quickly in Sanctuary. Daniel Whitman was not a good person. He was a rapist and sexual abuser. But nobody in the town of Sanctuary wants to believe that of their star football player, even if there’s video evidence. So they blame the witch’s daughter, because everyone knows witches are slutty. And because his death doesn’t make sense, well, that’s probably her fault too. And if it’s not her fault, it must be her mother, because everyone knows what witches can do. And if she can do that, well, maybe she’s responsible for those kids getting ill and on it goes, fueled by the media and people in power who should know better. It was all so familiar too, highlighting the fact that while it might not be witches who suffer in our reality, this happens all day every day. The speed with which the town turns on Sarah and Harper, two women who have lived all their lives in Sanctuary, who are friends with the other townsfolk, whose parents and grandparents also lived all their lives there, is, frankly, terrifying.
Sanctuary is a really interesting read. The town and its residents are vividly evoked, and nothing that happened felt out of place or unrealistic within the story. It really felt like I was there, watching events unfold and not sat in my living room merely reading about them!. The use of transcripts and newspaper reports really added to this and I felt a real sense of trepidation about what was to come. As I said at the top, I found myself unable to put the book down, and if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is!
Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!
Sanctuary is out now. Many thanks to Gollancz for gifting me a copy in exchange for an honest review!