Book/Author and Year Published: Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft edited by Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood

Reviewer: Jeriann

Age/Genre: YA Fiction Anthology

Preferred Reading Environment: In the bathtub, with candles lit if conditions allow.

Reading Accoutrements: Herbal Tea

Content Notes: Sexism, Sexual Assault, Physical Assault, Domestic Abuse

On day I got an email from Amazon that a pre-order that I’d made had come through and was being downloaded to my Kindle. I looked at the book title: Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft and thought, “Huh, I don’t remember buying that, but it sure looks cool.” I’m sure I saw a recommendation or promotion from one of the authors or other publishing-industry people who I follow on Twitter and made an impulse buy. 

And now, in October, I have time to make good on that impulse.

As the title suggests, Toil and Trouble is a collection of short stories about women and witchcraft. Most of the main characters have some relationship with magic, and many of them face prejudice, even though their abilities often benefit those around them.

As usual with short story collections, I will be picking out a few of my favorites to review. 

Toil and Trouble opens with “Starsong” by Tehkir Kay Mejia. Luna is a sixteen year-old girl who does astrological readings for people on social media. She uses her family’s connection to magic to guide her hand as she paints, interpreting the results and sharing her art on social media. A girl her age who is obsessed with NASA and science comments that astrology is bullshit, and the two end up having a conversation about their beliefs. I loved how this showed that healthy dialogue could happen online, and how sharing perspectives can cause people to look at issues in different ways. This story also perfectly portrayed the beginnings of a high school crush, with all the second guessing and reading between the lines that comes with social media interactions. 

“The Heart in Her Hands” by Tess Sharpe follows Bettina Clarke, who lives in a society of people with magical abilities. Bettina doesn’t like how the laws of society restrict her potential and keep her from being her true self. She defies Lady Fate (an invisible presence who is worshipped as a deity) several times, first by breaking the bindings that the village elders used to keep her from performing magic until they felt she was ready, then by rejecting her “soulmate” for the person she truly loves. This story had some great details, like the first words that your fate-assigned soulmate will speak to you painfully appearing in your skin shortly before you meet.

In “Death in the Sawtooths” by Lindsay Smith, a witch named Mattie puts the dead to rest by writing down their last secrets, communicated by their bones, and commending them to Lady Xosia, a dark goddess who other witches and wizards distrust because she represents death, and her followers committed dark deeds in the past. Mattie is sought out by a colleague who used to bully her when they both attended conservatory together to investigate some unexplained possessions. Mattie must figure out what is going on, even though it means helping the system that has pushed her aside. I loved the worldbuilding in this story. It’s set in a version of the Sawtooths that includes secret schools and a whole society of magic practitioners. I would definitely read a book series set in this world.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma is narrated by a group of unseen witches. They recount the tales of young girls accidentally happening upon their ritualistic fire in the woods. The witches and the girls are all there due to trauma, whether inflicted by individuals or society. The narration is beautiful, really capturing the group aspect. No one person is speaking for the group, but they each have individual descriptors and roles: “the coldest of us,” “the shyest of us,” “the loudest of us,” “the angriest of us.” The group exists as a whole, but the individuals are not erased. This one is a bit of a hard read, as it does contain allusions to rape, but the end was hopeful. 

In “The Well Witch” by Kate Hart, Elsa must protect her homestead and her life when three men ride in looking for temporary shelter and provisions. Elsa’s home is a mysterious oasis in the middle of the desert, and she knows that as a woman living alone in the middle of nowhere, she can’t trust anyone. We see the racism and sexism that was typical of the Old West, but we also see that there have always been good people, which sometimes gets erased in historical pieces. Just because horrible acts were common doesn’t mean they weren’t horrible, and even accepted as horrible at the time; people were just more able to escape accountability. This story reminded me a bit of Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, mostly because of the setting. 

Toil and Trouble shows many different kinds of magic and types of witches. Not every character identifies as a witch, and some of the characters don’t define their talents as magic. Several cultures are represented, and we see characters in different relationships with their society’s mainstream culture. All of the main characters are women or girls, but this collection doesn’t try to make one singular experience represent womanhood. Many of the protagonists are teenagers, but we also see grown women in various stages of life. Some of the characters have love interests, while others do not. We see characters who are attracted to men, women, and people regardless of gender. Some are close to their families, while others are estranged. Some stories are set in our world, while others take place in fictional settings. While “Starsong” takes place in modern day, “Afterbirth”, the second story in the collection, is set in 1650. “The Well Witch” is set in 1875, and “Why They Watch us Burn,” the final story, does not state a time, but could be in a dystopian future or a world or timeline different from our own.  

There were several stories that I could see successfully being expanded into novels and series, but every single one was complete on its own. I believe it takes a lot to make readers want more yet still leave satisfied, and the stories in this collection all succeed at that. I’ve already checked out several of these authors on social media and will be looking for more of their work.

Tell us about a themed anthology you’ve enjoyed recently!

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