6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Title: Born Wicked

Author: Jessica Spotswood

Genre: Dystopia, Historical Fantasy (Alternate History), Young Adult

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Publication Date: February 2012
Hardcover: 330 Pages

Everybody knows Cate Cahill and her sisters are eccentric. Too pretty, too reclusive, and far too educated for their own good. But the truth is even worse: they’re witches. And if their secret is discovered by the priests of the Brotherhood, it would mean an asylum, a prison ship—or an early grave.

Before her mother died, Cate promised to protect her sisters. But with only six months left to choose between marriage and the Sisterhood, she might not be able to keep her word… especially after she finds her mother’s diary, uncovering a secret that could spell her family’s destruction. Desperate to find alternatives to their fate, Cate starts scouring banned books and questioning rebellious new friends, all while juggling tea parties, shocking marriage proposals, and a forbidden romance with the completely unsuitable Finn Belastra.

If what her mother wrote is true, the Cahill girls aren’t safe. Not from the Brotherhood, the Sisterhood—not even from each other.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Cahill Witch Chronicles

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, seeing as it’s a historical fantasy novel with witches. Yup. I’m in.


When her mother dies, fourteen year old Cate Cahill is faced with an enormous responsibility. Cate has promised her mother that she will take care of her two younger sisters, protecting them from the watchful, dangerous notice of The Brotherhood. In Cate’s nineteenth century New England, The Brotherhood controls all aspects of life and throws women into asylums for sinfulness and accusations of witchcraft. While many women simply disappear or are arrested under baseless accusations, Cate has an even greater reason to fear the Brotherhood – because she and her younger sisters Maura and Tess are all witches of extreme power.

As Cate nears her seventeenth birthday, the danger facing her family reaches a frightening peak. You see, before turning seventeen, each girl must formally declare her intent to marry (and announce her husband), or her intent to join the Sisterhood (the devout female counterpart of the Brotherhood). For Cate, the thought of leaving her brash younger sisters behind unprotected is just as terrifying as the thought of marrying – even if she feels attraction towards two eligible young men. When an anonymous note arrives with a warning that she and her sisters are in great danger, Cate is embroiled in a dangerous mystery that leads to her late mother’s diary. The diary poses more questions than answers, though, and as Cate’s declaration day nears she must unravel the truth and discern who her friends and enemies are, if she is to keep those she loves safe.

Born Wicked is a strange mix of a book; a melange of genres and ideas. On the one hand, it is a young adult novel set in an alternate version of post-Crucible-esque New England, playing on the familiar Hawthorne themes of gender and sexuality, and religious zeal and witchcraft. On the other, it’s a vision of a fantastical dystopia, in which women – some of whom actually can perform magic – are persecuted by men. On the face of it, I love the idea of Born Wicked and this intoxicating blend of themes and issues.

In practice, however, Born Wicked falters in execution, making one of the common errors in the new wave of YA dystopias: being thematically simplistic and obvious. The themes of oppression and power and the examination of such a misogynistic society could have been wonderful, engaging food for thought, but there is no subtlety or grace in the presentation of this society. We are told over and over again that The Brotherhood is twisted, hypocritical and evil; we see women arrested and incarcerated without due process. We are entreated to Cate’s mind numbingly repetitive inner monologue about the injustice of it all. These are all great points and fodder for discussion, but the hamfisted way these ideas are repeated in the book comes off as clumsy and obvious. We know sexism is a Bad Thing, just like we know that Totalitarian Regimes where Love is Outlawed are Bad Things. This explication of a society in which people are behaving in absolutes is not achieving anything new. Readers – especially young adult readers! – do not need to be pandered to or spoon-fed anything. We’re smart. We can pick up on subtlety. The level of this blatancy is, frankly, a bit insulting to a reader’s intelligence.1

Beyond the dystopian-esque elements, however, there are also the historical and fantastical elements to the world. Personally, I love the idea of *actual* witches capable of *actual* magic in 1800s New England, just as I love this new vision of a world in which the Eastern United States are oppressively backwards when compared to the societies in Dubai and Mexico City. That’s an awesome juxtaposition that is marginally touched upon in the book (but I hope for more in the next volume). I don’t quite think the worldbuilding really works, and it seems odd to me that in Cate’s world, race plays nary a role, while gender does. And, while I like and appreciated the diverse cast, I am disappointed that while people may have been Japanese, for example, they are oddly bereft of Japanese culture, language, or religious beliefs.2

And then, of course, there are the characters and the storyline overall. My largest complaint from a storytelling perspective is how nothing happens in this book. It’s written well enough, in a style that suits the alternate historical time period with attention to details like pretty dresses and fashions, which is all nice and good – but the action is so stunted, the witchcraft wielding so sparse throughout. I actually LIKED the story behind Cate’s mother and her diary, and the mystery that underscores the danger faced by Cate and her sisters – again, it’s the execution that was wanting. I wish there could have been less time spent on tea parties and requisite love-triangle-ing, and more time spent on the actual meat and potatoes of the story.

On the character front, I’m perhaps being more harsh than necessary because I flat out am not a fan of Cate as a heroine. She cares deeply about her sisters, which is great, but she’s also incredibly boneheaded about the way she treats them (particularly middle sister Maura). Cate’s also beautiful, smart, and OF COURSE, incredibly powerful beyond compare as a witch (naturally). She’s made a martyr of herself and it’s incredibly grating to read about, page after page, even though her intentions are good. There’s also the requisite romance and triangularish entanglement between Cate and the handsome boy next door, and Cate and the handsome bespectacled gardener. Meh. I’ve read better.

The most compelling character arcs, in my opinion, are the tensions between Cate and her sisters. THIS is what saved the book for me, especially in the later chapters. I love that the bond between sisters is portrayed as a volatile, complicated thing – even for those sisters that love each other. Cate is so doggedly determined to protect her younger sisters that her lack of trust in them hurts their relationships, and there is going to be hell to pay in the next volume. This tension, together with a few nice twists at the end, save this book from banality and nudge it up into entertaining territory. While it’s not without its significant flaws, I liked Born Wicked enough to want to read the next book to see the fate of Cate and the sisters Cahill.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Our mother was a witch, too, but she hid it better.

I miss her.

Not a single day goes by that I don’t wish for her guidance. Especially about my sisters.

Tess runs ahead of me, heading for the rose garden—our sanctuary, our one safe place. Her slippers slide on the cobblestones, the hood of her gray cloak falling to reveal blonde curls. I glance back at the house. It’s against the Brothers’ strictures for girls to go out of doors uncloaked, and running isn’t considered ladylike. But we’re concealed from the house by tall hedges. Tess is safe.

For now.

She waits ahead, kicking at the dead leaves 21SR1Lbeneath a maple. “I hate autumn,” she complains, biting at her lip with pearly teeth. “It feels so sad.”

“I like it.” There’s something invigorating in the crisp September air, the searing blue skies, the interplay of orange and scarlet and gold. The Brotherhood would probably ban autumn if they could. It’s too beautiful. Too sensuous.

Tess points to the clematis climbing up the trellis. Their petals are brown and crumbling, their tired heads bowing toward the ground.

“See, everything’s dying,” she says mournfully. I realize what she intends a scant second before she acts.

You can read the first two chapters online HERE (note, this is from Penguin Australia).

Rating: 6 – Good

Reading Next: Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse

Buy the Book:

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  1. I know this is all rather harsh, but I cannot stress how much this sledgehammer technique pisses me off. Teenagers are reading some of the most complexly celebrated works of literature by the time they get to middle school and high school. There’s no need to dumb things down! THIS IS A HUGE PET PEEVE. Ahem.
  2. There’s also an alarming lack of other religions. Wouldn’t Mexico or Dubai or Japan or China – all of which are mentioned in the book – have different beliefs and religious systems than this obviously Christian model? This isn’t explored.


  • Katherine H
    March 23, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Well, if you like witch stories, check out Celia Rees’ ‘Witch Child.’ It is brilliant!

  • Christa @ Hooked on Books
    March 23, 2012 at 7:06 am

    I totally know what you mean about the “sledgehammer technique”. It constantly disappoints me the way people talk down about teens and what they should/shouldn’t be reading. I’m sorry but if teens are capable of tackling Shakespeare, Animal Farm, Jude the Obscure and Oedipus Rex etc in high school I think they’re capable of figuring about basic plot points and what’s important in the story.

  • C.D.
    March 23, 2012 at 9:14 am

    YES! Thank you for your rant about the sledgehammer technique. As soon as a book (YA or otherwise) pulls it out, I want to throw it against the wall.
    Readers – teenagers, kids, adults etc. – want books they can engage with. You can’t engage with a book that explicitly tells you, over and over and over and over, what to think about the plot, the characters, the circumstances, the themes etc.
    Well, unless your idea of engagement is to throw books against the wall (which I do not condone. Think of the WALL. Poor things have enough problems).

  • Small Review
    March 25, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Yes! Thank you! I couldn’t agree more with every one of your points. I was so looking forward to this book and I love the premise, but the execution and Cate led me to put this down unfinished. The world building also really grated on me. You stated it perfectly.

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  • Thea
    March 31, 2012 at 5:57 am

    Thanks for all the comments, folks! (And sorry for being late to the party…again)

    Katherine H – Thanks for the rec! I will check it out!

    Christa – The Sledgehammer Technique pisses me off to NO END. I completely agree with you! I remember in high school doing indepth analyses of some of the most complicated, subtle, challenging books I have *ever* read. Around the world, teens and young adults are doing the same, and have been for a long time. It’s almost insulting to read books that insist on forcefeeding every single important aspect of the novel (or those books that attempt to bludgeon readers on the head with ThematicImportance!). Definitely, it’s one of my main pet peeves and a sure way to rile me up while reading. ARGH.

    C.D. – I couldn’t agree more. The wall is in pain, people! #SaveTheWall2012

    Small Review – Thanks so much! I totally understand where you’re coming from and share your disappointment. Hopefully the next book will be better? We shall see.

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  • Mhhzzz Lolz
    May 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Born Wicked is great, can’t wait for the next books and the movie to come out, fingers crossed that the movie will be as good as the book:D 8) 8) 8) 8) 8) 😀 😀 😀 🙂

  • mjkluio7809
    June 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I loved the book and can’t wait for the next one! Is there really going to be a movie about this? I really hope so. XD

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