The LGBTQ Review | These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

Culture Literature
Photo by Darian Lee, Design Director

These Witches Don’t Burn is a story about a young witch named Hannah who lives in Salem, Massachusetts. I know what you might be thinking — isn’t Salem a little cliché? The answer is, yes, it is. Though the cliché aspects of setting a book about witches in Salem isn’t the only problem this novel faces, it has many good qualities as well. The best thing about this book is that it features a couple of great romance stories. The lesbian relationships in this book are handled with care and given a wonderfully realistic feel using dialogue and actions that really feel true to life. None of the romance plots are treated as if they are something to hide or be ashamed of, which is an approach that queer romance stories desperately need. The fact that the romance plots in this book are treated with respect and care makes it easier for me to overlook some of the book’s more glaring issues — such as the fact that none of the characters ever seem to learn how to handle their own problems.

My main concern with this book is that every plot point comes to be resolved in a way that leaves the main character without any agency or empowerment. Of course, in any story there are meant to be moments where the main character fumbles, messes up completely, and causes their own problems. But when it comes to solving those problems, it’s generally expected that the story’s protagonist will eventually take matters into their own hands. 

Unfortunately, in this story, Hannah doesn’t seem to be able to effectively solve any problems. Everything that she does to progress the plot feels like a mistake, even up to the very end of the story. That isn’t to say that a protagonist should always make perfect decisions, or that a flawed character is a bad thing — in fact, I believe the opposite to be true — but it would have been nice to see Hannah clean up the messes she causes. It would have been satisfying to see her use magic to save the day. Instead, she and her friend were doomed right up until the last 30 pages of the book. When they are saved, it’s not by Hannah’s skills as a witch or her intelligence (or any other quality she possesses), but instead by other characters who swoop in out of the blue to solve the problems she’s created.

Another issue readers may notice within this novel is the lack of magic in a book that promotes itself as being a story about witches. Due to the fact that the driving details in this novel are that it occurs in Salem and follows members of a coven, readers will go into this book expecting magic to be the most important element of the story. Instead, for the first three quarters of the plot, magic takes a back seat. Most of the time, Hannah and her witch ex-girlfriend aren’t even allowed to use their magic. And in the end, being able to finally make use of their magic doesn’t even help them. Instead, they’re left helpless to wait for someone else to come and save them, meaning that their own agency as characters is snuffed out at the most crucial moment in the plot.

It is difficult for me to imagine that readers will remain interested in a story about witches that seems to so heavily dislike the idea of witches using their magic. Most people aren’t going to pick up a book about a coven in Salem and think, “I hope their magic is useless for the entirety of the plot.” In fact, according to many other reviews, this element really irked readers and even caused some to put the book down without finishing it. It is a little misleading to write a book about witches and leave them practically as mortal for the entire story. It might not bother some as much as it does others, but it certainly didn’t work well for me throughout my reading. Though there is a second novel in this series available for purchase, I think many who read the first book may be hesitant to pick up the second. The writer will have to do a lot of work to earn back the trust of their readers and endear them to the series.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how well-written the romance plots in this story are. Many stories about queer couples aren’t treated with the kind of care, realism, and thoughtfulness that they are in this story. It is refreshing to read a book where the lesbian characters aren’t secrets that their bisexual love interests have to hide. It’s refreshing to see that same-sex couples aren’t treated by the plot as transgressive. Yes, there are a couple of characters who aren’t comfortable with the idea of their teenage daughter being best friends with a lesbian, but a little realistic homophobia is a good way to underscore the idea that queer people are still discriminated against unjustly in our current era. This works especially well when the rest of the characters in the story are so open, accepting, loving, and are themselves queer. The romances were sweet and interesting, and overall, I think any queer woman will appreciate the open and honest representation this book provides.

At the end of the day, the novel’s conclusion was insufferably underwhelming, and this rather thoroughly soured my experience. The main character was generally bumbling and difficult to imagine as an actual witch instead of just a delusional mortal (or “reg” as they are referred to in the book). In the end, it didn’t feel like anyone learned anything from their failures, and they were never forced to clean up their own messes. If you’re interested in a story where everyone learns and grows, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for an awesome story about magic and covens that will enrapture you with its twists, turns and action, maybe you should look somewhere else. But, if you’re looking for a cute lesbian love story that will make you smile a few times, this could be it. Although it would have been nice if the book were marketed honestly, instead of pretending to be about witches. I suppose it delivered on at least some of the elements it claimed to have. I give it three out of five stars.