I finished Sanctuary* at a little past midnight and my first thought was that I’m very glad I order my shelves alphabetically because I have no idea where genre-organisers are going to put this one. It’s not the urban fantasy I thought it would be, it’s beyond thriller and the witches will keep it off the topical contemporary shelf. Sanctuary is hard to define beyond the word Brilliant. This is a long one today!
Sanctuary. It’s the perfect town… to hide a secret.
To Detective Maggie Knight, the death of Sanctuary’s star quarterback seems to be a tragic accident. Only, everyone knows his ex-girlfriend is the daughter of a witch – and she was there when he died.
Then the rumours start.
Bereaved mother Abigail will stop at nothing until she has justice for her dead son. Her best friend Sarah will do everything in her power to protect her accused daughter. And both women share a secret that could shatter their lives.
It falls to Maggie to prevent her investigation – and Sanctuary itself – from spiralling out of control.
My initial interest for this book was based in the research that V.V. James did into witchcraft because it’s a topic I’m personally interested in and find fascinating. The note at the end says that while the magical system draws on various sources, it shouldn’t be equated to modern day practices, and I’d love a long article from V.V. James going into this. Her talk at the Gollancz preview night was incredibly detailed, and this research shows in the book.
I know I’m not alone in my avoidance of topical books. I like a lot of books that deal with tough subjects but I feel like when they get too close to the realities of everyday, I find them very stressful to read. There were definitely moments like that in Sanctuary; the President tweets using a lot of words in all caps while disparaging Democrats, there’s religious cultural appropriation, there’s a case of rape with a lot of comments ranging from believing victims to slut shaming, even from police which- yeah. The use of police transcripts, emails, tweets and news articles interspersed between the multiple POVs make it feel very real. But there’s no direct allegory for the witches in Sanctuary and I think that’s kind of the point, there’s a bit of everything from religious persecution, sexism, unethical policing and racism. So by adding magic and witchcraft, for me, it actually stopped it being as anxiety-inducing while still addressing important contemporary problems.
The theme of consent is also explored in a really interesting way. You’ve got the rape storyline which we see all the time in real life; popular sports star doesn’t understand the word no. But you’ve also got the idea that the ‘foundational principle of magic is consent’ so magic without consent goes wrong and causes adverse reactions. I liked the way this was dealt with, and the parallels are really interesting.
A lot happens in this book, and every time you think that that things about to get better for the characters, they probably won’t. It’s a busy novel. By having so many POVs (three main and others popping in), it did feel like some characters fell a little flat and didn’t get much page time. I would’ve loved more from some of the other coven members and their children as it developed but there was so much going on that the book didn’t feel lacking without it.
And the writing, oh, the writing. The power of grief was tangible and even if the actions of the grieving were reprehensible, V.V. James made it believable. It seemed easy for the grief to lead to intolerance, even if it isn’t something we imagine in ourselves, it is something we see a lot in reality that I’ve never really thought about before reading this.
With Sanctuary, V.V. James has created a fantasy version of contemporary America that’s incredibly real and brutal. I know I won’t be alone in hoping that Sanctuary doesn’t stay a stand-alone and becomes a companion-style series dealing with similar issues in a world of fictional witchcraft.
“The giveaway of what happened here is the blown out windows. Each one is blackened with soot round the edges, like evil itself crawled out of every hole it could find.”