Review: Being a Witch

Being a Witch, and Other Things I Didn't Ask for audiobook cover. The title in large, yellow and white text upon a swirling city-scape background. Being a Witch, and Other Things I Didn't Ask for by Sara Pascoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 7 hrs 40 mins.

Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn't Ask For by Sara Pascoe is the story of Raya, a fourteen-year-old girl who feels somewhat adrift in the foster system following her mother's psychosis and the loss of her grandparents. When Raya's perception of reality begins to falter and she starts hearing impossible things like cats talking, Raya believes that her worst fears are coming true and she is losing her mind as her mother did. Attempting to outrun the monster inside her head, Raya begins a journey that will test her resilience, her loyalty, and her strength, travelling through some of the most dangerous periods of history and learning to control her developing powers...

Audible summary: After a life of hurt and disappointment, Raya, the spiky-haired, Doc Marten-wearing 14-year-old decides it’s time to strike out on her own. She leaves the boring English village and what she's determined will be her last foster placement for the excitement of London. But it turns out she’s a witch, with the annoying habit of time-travelling - by accident. And a sarcastic witch’s cat Oscar tags along for the ride. Why would she fling herself into the midst of the Essex Witch Trials in 1645 England?

After being arrested by one of history’s most notorious witch hunters, her social worker and witch mentor Bryony goes back to try to save them from the gallows. But returning to present day London remains out of reach when they find themselves in Istanbul in the year 1645. There, life is more amazing than she ever dreamed. Can she stay? And at what cost?

This book first piqued my interest because I assumed (due to the shared spelling and a categorisation-error on Audible), that this book was written by British comedian, Sara Pascoe, whose book Animal I had previously enjoyed. Despite discovering that it was actually written by a completely different - and much more American - Sara Pascoe, I was not disappointed.

Being A Witch is a fun, colourful, story which remains lively and engaging throughout. The protagonist, Raya, is angry at a world she feels has rejected her, and she is determined that her attitude will remain as spiky as her hairdo! Like most teenage girls, Raya is a bit of a brat, and thinks that she knows everything. Little does she realise how much she still has to learn, especially in a world full of 'Integrators'; people who practice magic, read minds, see futures, and can travel through time and space. I very much enjoyed watching Raya's powers develop, but I would have liked there to be more explanation about how and why witches became known as Integrators, and when magic became known to the human world. It would have helped add to the world-building a little, and given a little context to Raya's initial incredulity.

I loved Raya's companion, witches' Familiar, Oscar the cat. A sarcastic New Yorker with a tongue as sharp as his claws, Oscar reminded me a little of Salem - my favourite character from the 90s TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. This helped endear me to Oscar early on, and I welcomed his unwilling presence during their travels through the Essex Witch Trials and out into the Ottoman Empire. I was less fond of the Social Worker, Bryony, who was painted as being well-meaning but rather hapless, which (as the daughter of a former Children and Families Social Worker), is a stereotype I have seen a lot in the media but doesn't represent the passionate - if often a little bit bonkers - people I grew up watching as they tried to make a difference. I appreciate that she had to be a bit incompetent for Raya to step up and discover her own potential, but I would have liked Bryony to have a bit more chutzpah! The rules governing time travel suitably tied her hands in Istanbul, and it would have been nice if we'd seen Bryony's character develop as Raya grew up a little and stopped seeing her as yet another adult who would let her down.

Raya's emotional journey as she finally found a makeshift family and learnt to accept love and support was an important lesson, and one which would - I think - make this book an exceptional candidate for a future AudiobookSYNC summer program. It's a book with a great message and a strong young woman at the helm. It doesn't shy away from difficult subjects such as mental health, death, and racism, though I must say that some of the racist language used to demonstrate the discrimination felt by a local Indian shopkeeper was quite shocking. It's fortunately not a word one hears as frequently these days, but it helps Raya to realise how far she has come and how far others still have to go.

On the subject of language, Raya discovers that she can speak Turkish when she arrives in Istanbul with Oscar and Bryony. I adored the description when she begins to use the native language, and she muses that "the words danced along her tongue and made her lips do new tricks". This sentiment was also embodied by the narrator, Fiona Hardingham, who performed the book wonderfully. She had a lovely tone to her voice and brought each character alive with distinct personalities and an array of convincing accents. I very much enjoyed listening to her, and would look out for other books she has read.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes YA urban fantasy, strong heroines, and lively storytelling. Though it was a stand-alone story in most respects, it felt as though it could be the first book in a series and I certainly hope that the author plans more.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.


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2 comments

  1. This sounds like a wonderful book! I am going to scribble the book's title down in my wish list notebook. I look forward to meeting Raya and Oscar eventually. Does Raya's narrative voice take over the story or do we have a neutral narrator telling the story? Sometimes, it's hard to enjoy a story when the narrator irks you, you know? I like the idea of time-travel in a children's novel. It's not something I encountered much thus far. It sounds like a nice twist. Do you see potential for the story to lead to a series or does it seem like a standalone novel?

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    Replies
    1. It's all told from Raya's POV, which is great because it lets her drive her own story the way she does everything else; by diving in head first! There may be people who aren't keen on that because it does mean that the initial tone of the book is quite stroppy - because so is Raya. She's angry and upset and doesn't know how to deal with anything because she doesn't think she can rely on anybody. She begins the book quite immature despite her experiences, but grows significantly as the book progresses.

      It's a standalone in so much as that this growth is a complete cycle for Raya. All the key elements of this story are resolved by the end, so it could be considered a one-off. But there are enough hints about the wider world (an Academy for integrators, Raya's mother, and all of time and space to explore) that it would be easy to revisit and expand on the foundations that have been laid in this novel. I don't know if the author has any plans to continue Raya's story, it isn't listed as the first in a series, but some of the things that were mentioned in passing gave me hope that perhaps the author has some ideas for Raya's future.

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