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In the first folio edition of William Shakespeare’s witchiest play, a Scottish general named Macbeth receives a prophecy from a trio of witches called the Weyward Sisters. Since then, their name has been updated to “Weird.” But in Emilia Hart’s spellbinding debut, she reclaims their original name to tell the story of three generations of brave, resilient women. Welcome to WEYWARD.

In 1619, Altha Weyward awaits trial for the murder of John Milburn, a local farmer whose wife, Grace, was once Altha’s childhood best friend. Alone since the death of her mother, a town healer who made more enemies than she did friends as a result of the shoddy work of the local doctor and the villagers’ fears of her mother’s unusual methods, Altha has no one to call on to support her. But she does have generations of training in the art of protection and outthinking ignorant men, all handed down to her by her mother.

Branded a “witch” for her respect and admiration of nature and her ability to craft medicines and treatments from herbs and other natural resources, Altha is facing the same fate as many unusual and unquiet women in history: hanging. As she takes the stand, however, she considers the end of her friendship with Grace and the unusual circumstance that has brought them together once again.

"This spectacular tale of feminism and magical realism is also a satisfying mystery that is as engaging as any modern thriller, but with the nostalgic air of a fairy tale or fantasy."

In 1942, an uncanny young girl named Violet Ayres finds solace in the seemingly magical gardens surrounding her father’s crumbling manor just outside the village of Crows Beck in Cumbria, England. Although she has a brother and a nanny, she longs for the comfort of a mother, or at least information about the mother she once had, who left behind nothing but a necklace with a “W” carved into it.

With her father focused on the war and securing an education for her undeserving brother, Violet is forced to make her own fun, and she finds that she has an innate connection to the natural world. As she creeps about the manor, rescuing spiders and delighting in books like THE SECRET GARDEN and GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES, she hears the staff whisper about the strangeness of her parents’ romance and her mother’s death. Violet looks just like her mother, they claim, yet they will tell her nothing else, including how her mother died or why her life is veiled in so much secrecy.

Finally, in 2019, a young woman named Kate Ayres finds the courage to leave her abusive, controlling partner when she learns that she is pregnant with his child. He has long controlled her finances, her cell phone, and her comings and goings, but when she inherited a cottage from her great-aunt Violet last year, she found the first kernel of a plan for freedom. When she finally flees her luxurious apartment and dazzling but sinister partner, she questions for the first time the reason why Violet, whom she barely knew, left Weyward Cottage to her.

Kate's arrival there only pushes her to ask more questions as its small rooms are filled with framed samples of bugs and insects, bird feathers and scales. When she finally ventures into town, she learns that the townsfolk believed her great-aunt to be not just an Ayres, but a Weyward, a name she has never heard. They also whisper about the strangeness of her family, and the word “witch” meets her ears more than once.

Hart weaves a tale of witchcraft and nature, female resilience and the systemic abuses employed by villainous men. Her characters, divided by five centuries of male-dominated history, each find themselves drawn to nature and strengthened by their connections to flora and fauna. Yet each has been held back, tied down and controlled by at least one man. As the women face historically relevant dangers and impossibly complicated choices, they start to carve out paths to freedom, all while reclaiming the comfort they find in nature and making magic out of the synchronicity and beauty of the natural world. While Kate’s story is an obvious and familiar tale of abuse, Violet’s and Altha’s are more nuanced and subtextual, seemingly common for their time yet written with spectacular clarity that makes the horrors of their abuses feel all the more chilling.

But the book's real magic is how Hart ties their stories together, highlighting the generational resilience and strength of the magical Weyward women and the ways in which they continue to look out for, support and champion one another even across centuries and borders. This spectacular tale of feminism and magical realism is also a satisfying mystery that is as engaging as any modern thriller, but with the nostalgic air of a fairy tale or fantasy. Much like the Weyward women themselves, WEYWARD is sure to withstand centuries of readers, encouraging women everywhere to unlock the power --- and the magic --- within themselves.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 10, 2023

by Emilia Hart