Colleen Mondor Reviews The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, Sangu Mandanna (Berkley 978-0-593-43935-7, $17.00, tp, 316 pp) November 2022. Cover by Lisa Perrin.
For much of the time I was reading Sangu Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, I was waiting for the other literary shoe to drop. Something bad, I was certain, had to happen. As British witch Mika Moon took on the job of educating a trio of young witches who were cared for by an eclectic group of non-witch adults, I was sure one of the children was going to experience grievous harm, one of the adults was going to turn out to be a power-mad monster with murderous intent, or the UK political apparatus was going to find out that witches exist and pass laws that sent Mika and her friends to prison. While I realize the whimsical cover does nothing to suggest that any of this was going to happen, (Mika in cheery yellow dress on broom, friendly house, lots of flowers, bookish love interest walking below with stack of books in hand), too many titles with a dependence on dystopian destruction, (or blood thirsty vampires), has hardwired my brain to assume the worst. Eventually, I realized that while there is some drama to be found here, it is relatively gentle in nature and this is simply a heartwarming book of friendship and acceptance.
Reader, I’m not sorry to say that I embraced that message with all my heart.
Early on in The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, readers learn the denizens of Nowhere House have a problem. Left as the de facto guardians of three young girls who happen to be witches, the adults have no magical ability and need someone to teach these girls how to control their magic and get by undetected in the “real” world. Adopted separately by a largely absent world-traveling archeologist, the girls have no family (witches are always orphans) (there is a curse) (this is all explained in the book) other than the retired actor, gardener, housekeeper, and librarian who occupy various positions in the house (and all work for the archeologist). As the girls start to experience some dangerous magical accidents, the group goes looking online for help and finds Mika, who pretends to be a sweet witchy personality on Instagram, but secretly wields enormous power. In need of steady work, she agrees to take on the role of modern-day governess solely for the purpose of magic lessons. It’s supposed to be temporary and, because of witch politics, she knows it’s going to be tricky. But Mika falls in love – with the girls, with the house, with the caretakers, and especially with Jamie, the suitably cranky but caring librarian. When crisis arrives, and it has been brewing for some time, Mika has choices to make that require a lot of trust in old friends and new. It is not a spoiler to say that everything works out, especially the romance. This is a book squarely aimed at a happy ending from the very beginning; it’s the reader’s job to sit back and enjoy the process of getting there.
Mandanna writes in her afterword that months into the pandemic, “all I wanted to work on was a warm, cozy, romantic story about magic and family… that was, above all things, about love and human connection.” In telling Mika’s story, which is rooted in the isolation that witches have been trained to embrace, Mandanna shows how much we all value connection, especially when we cannot have it.
Like the enveloping charm of TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches illustrates how the common goal of helping children can bring adults together, and while older teens will enjoy this book as much as that one, partly due to the complex young characters, Mandanna, just like Klune, is really aiming at adults who are looking to add some joy to their lives. Her warm descriptions of Mika’s magic (which includes transporting a koi pond, including fish, in the backseat of a car), Nowhere House (LOVE), and the endlessly entertaining characters who parade across the pages (both magic and not) are all designed to make the reader feel various layers of comfort and it works well. I have long felt that happy stories don’t get enough respect in the literary world – it just seems too easy when no one is under threat of death every other page, apparently. There is little I can do to change that perception other than to tell you that a book like The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is just as necessary as those the warn us against the pending end of the world, likely even more. I invite you to have a good time, laugh a little, and maybe fall in love, while reading about Mika’s adventures. For the koi pond alone, this book is 100% worth your time.
This review and more like it in the February 2023 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.