Sanctuary by VV James

I would like to thank Gollancz for an advance copy of this novel for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Gollancz

Published – Out Now

Price - £6.99 Kindle £14.99 Hardcover

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…

CW – Please be aware that this novel does look at how society deals with rape and sexual assault.  Its not gratuitous but it is also unflinching in its review of how society tends to approach this subject.

Community is an interesting concept. It’s a place where we live, visit or inhabit where a group of us agree to live, study or work together in a form of harmony. We are increasingly getting more diverse and accepting of people that no longer form the cis white norm and barriers are breaking…but…communities are also fragile things. Unwritten codes and conventions exist; some may be more powerful than others (weirdly this still  often turns out to be cis white people) and if someone is felt to be running against that hegemony then they can soon find themselves on the outside and a group of people suddenly see you as the Other and you’re no longer welcome. In VV James’ supernatural thriller Sanctuary a seemingly idyllic community explodes via rumour and magic to create something quite terrifying in how it shows that people can very soon cast aside their better natures if they think it’s the right thing to do for themselves or their own loved ones.

Sanctuary is a small US town in the 21st century where the President is a right-wing tweeter, the town is comfortable with its school principle being in a happy gay marriage and where witchcraft has long been acceptable.  Sarah Fenn is Sanctuary’s only witch offering actual magical cures for a variety of metal and physical ailments.  She even has a coven of three women Abigail, Bridget and Julia who lend power to Sarah to make her magic more effective. The coven regularly meets up; share each other’s lives and are debating how Sarah’s daughter Harper and Abigail’s son Daniel have broken up.  Its very middle class and liberal and then at a party of teenagers Daniel falls off a balcony just as a mysterious fire starts. He breaks his neck and the police are called to investigate what on the face of it looks like an unfortunate accident. And then the local police chief’s son claims Harper was seen to be using magic at the event. Despite Sarah knowing Harper failed the routine test for magical ability that all witch families practise on their offspring.  The rumours however go into overdrive as a popular teenager lies dead and then Harper announces that Daniel raped her. The coven shatters as the four women take sides and one outsider the Detective Maggie Knight has the unenviable job of trying to investigate what really happened before the quite people of Sanctuary decide to take the law into their own hands. A witch-hunt is about to begin…

Sanctuary I think I can safely say turned out to be one of the best thrillers I’ve read in ages. This is achieved by three main components. Firstly, the world building manages to be incredibly subtle with this being recognisably our world but one where we all accept magic exists via witchcraft. James gives us a world that feels amazingly plausible just one strange new element. Witches on the one hand are prized they can help people deal with physical or mental health issues, relationships and many more uses but t the same time knowing that your neighbour is powerful and can use magic for darker purposes such as injury or even murder which has resulted into an uneasy truce.  Witchcraft is tightly legislated for and although persecution of witches is now a hate crime the unlawful use of magic still carries significant penalties including when used to kill the death sentence. Witches are a minority and can be viewed as second class be it their unconventional child rearing skills or approach to relationships. James has nicely set up how people see witchcraft as having both uses and dangers which means when people feel threatened the balance is quickly gone.

Into this then are the characters and we get a main set of three-character points of view – Sarah, Abigail and Maggie. Watching how a grieving mother; a terrified parent and an outsider police officer swirl around each other sometimes in alliance and other times in conflict makes for an intense read as we see the coven slowly explode. Each character section has a particular voice that makes you understand how they see the world – it can be one of wonder; one of prestige or one of secrets to be unveiled. This is very much a novel of reveals where blurry hints and pictures of the past are slowly focused on and a tale of people doing what they think is in their (or other people’s) best interests soon erupts into recriminations and a quest for revenge. Often just as you think one character realises, they have gone too gar the faint hope that sanity has returned will instead be ripped away from you.  It creates a glorious uncertainty as to how the story can end and the reader continually doubts who may be the real culprit and is this town even actually capable of giving justice?

This leads to the final element the study of how society treats allegations of sexual abuse. Harper is not a straight A student – she cuts classes and is seen to have had the temerity to both date the school’s best player and then break up with him; plus, she’s a witch’s daughter and people are suspicious of her nature. It’s a book that examines how we are not often willing to accept a victim’s side of the story if she doesn’t fit the society view of what a victim should look like.  There is an examination of how the privileged are protected; how social media can be used to humiliate and cast rumours leading to reputations that are both quickly built up and destroyed.  It’s incredibly uncomfortable and as we never get Harper’s voice, we the reader are being asked who we believe. This is not a comfortable read but it will put a mirror up against your own beliefs and give you food for thought as to how we react against these types of allegations.

Overall I found this a thrilling, thoughtful and provocative novel where unlikeable and sympathetic characters swap places as we get to known them better but it is also a novel that is really getting under the lid of society and our prejudices; in particular when we feel our own positions of power are threatened.  It raises important question of motherhood and while very differ in approach and style it reminded me of The Mere Wife as we get two mothers prepared to do anything for their children’s future that could end up destroying where they live. If you enjoy dark character focused thrillers and impressive worldbuilding then I think this is an excellent book for you to catch soon.