Book Review – ‘The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches’ by Sangu Mandanna

TITLE: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
AUTHOR: Sangu Mandanna
GENRE: Paranormal Fantasy
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 336 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Penguin Random House on August 23rd, 2022
RRP$41.57 AUD (hardcover)

Blurb from Goodreads:

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family–and a new love–changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

From the moment you read its title, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches gives off a particular vibe—quirky, wry, humorous. Its first page cements this impression as we take in Mika Moon’s musings about the titular secret society of witches without a name, for whom she decides to create a series of improbable names in order to irritate the prim and proper head witch Primrose. It perfectly encapsulates the overall atmosphere of this book featuring a charming witty heroine who is part of an ancient order with traditions that she bucks against in a low-stakes feelgood paranormal fantasy.

The author takes a light hand with the world-building given that this book has a contemporary setting and its witches have assimilated into society, only meeting once a month in small numbers to avoid attracting attention and otherwise avoiding each other’s company. Magic in this world is a whimsical creature that responds to the needs of the witch as opposed to something with firm rules that can be nailed down, which is a little convenient, but all part of the charm of this book. It’s treated like a natural element that surrounds them at all times and just needs to be coaxed into doing a witch’s bidding, something that Mika does with enthusiasm as she channels her magic into potions and thrills in the creative process of enchantment.

Because all witches are orphans, Primrose found Mika as a child in the care of a social worker in India and she promptly whisked her away to England to place in the care of a series of nannies, each of whom had their memory wiped as soon as Mika exhibited any magical tendencies. Now as an adult, Mika is a cheerful but lonely woman, restless with no roots and a tendency to pick up and move on at the drop of a hat, forever searching for a place to call home. And that’s where Nowhere House comes in…

An eccentric cast of characters occupy Nowhere House—the most eccentric of them all is Ian Kubo-Hawthorn, a flamboyant retired actor; Ken, his patient long-suffering husband who does his best to rein in Ian’s grander impulses; Lucie, the sweet motherly housekeeper; Jamie, the grouchy irritable librarian; and three young orphaned witches Rosetta, Terracotta and Altamira who are in dire need of tutoring to keep their magic under control. Fortunately Ian identifies Mika as a witch from her YouTube videos (a source of contention between Primrose and Mika who insists that nobody would think they were genuine!) and invites her to stay with them in a temporary tutoring role.

To say that this book feels like a warm hug is a cliché, but one that is 100% true nonetheless and a credit to the author who wrote it during the pandemic with the intention of creating a ‘warm, cosy romantic story…that was, above all things, about love and human connection’. Lovers of the found family trope will be in heaven as we witness Mika settling into Nowhere House and overcoming a series of obstacles to find her place in its unconventional but tight-knit loving family unit. Most of the adults welcome Mika from the start, but Jamie is fiercely protective of the young witches he has nurtured in a paternal role and feels hostile towards Mika, viewing her as a potential threat. She finds that Rosetta and Altamira are both easy to win over, but the middle child Terracotta is a hilarious mini-Wednesday Addams who tries her hardest to intimidate Mika with ominous predictions of her death and a general brooding demeanour when she isn’t loudly contemplating murder.

The slowly brewing romance in the background is swoonworthy as Mika breaks down Jamie’s defences, charming him despite his best efforts to resist her, but the real highlight is Mika’s integration into the Nowhere House family. For a light breezy fantasy, the writing packs a punch and hits the reader emotionally every time she reaches a milestone with them that she never experienced anywhere else. Mika may be an independent and self-sufficient adult, but that doesn’t stop her inner wounded child craving stability and the elusive concept of belonging somewhere. This isn’t a melodrama with high stakes, but all the same, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up at certain points!

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is beautifully written with gentle humour and a lot of heart; it will wrap you up in a warm fluffy blanket and surround you with joy, laughter and contentment. Its characters are larger than life, endearing and wonderfully fleshed out, and the story mostly follows comfortably predictable beats with a few surprising swerves along the way to happily ever after. Sweet, heart-warming and whimsical, readers will thrill at losing themselves in these magical pages and never want to leave Nowhere House!

2 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches’ by Sangu Mandanna

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