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Tonight, I Burn

Tonight, I Burn by Katharine J. Adams

Orbit , £9.99 paperback

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

The appeal of witches and covens is immense for writers, but in her novel with a rather provocative title (there are so many ways to interpret it – it’s a challenge and a rebellion which at the same time reverberates with fear; it’s a declaration and a hesitation, an ending and a beginning, a shock and a routine thing) Katherine J. Adams plays with the traditional tropes eventually creating a rather atmospheric and full of vibes story.

Penny Allbright is a young Thorn witch who is coming of age and is supposed to start her patrols in Death like the rest of her coven members. But just before her birthday, when her new life is supposed to start, a few things happen. Her middle sister, Ella, asks her to break the rules and visit the library with her after the curfew. Not only do they wander during the forbidden time, Ella also steps into the prohibited part of the library without an explanation. Then, the next day, Ella burns and doesn’t return from Death. Her crystal shows that she is still alive, but their grandmother – The Queen of the Thorn witches – writes Ella off as dead. However, Penny cannot agree to that. Though the rules of the Thorn witches say that only one witch can travel into Death at a time, otherwise the lifelines get entangled (which doesn’t lead to anything good), Penny decides to risk it. After all, her crystal is of obsidian – a rare and powerful one, so that even her coven hides the truth of it from the Warden and the rest of the world.

After a self-arranged illegal burning, Penny enters Death and finds something totally unexpected – there is a castle there, where there is supposed to be only a desert leading to the Horizon. And Ella’s lifeline goes straight behind its walls. It turns out that the castle is inhabited by a young man, Lord Malin, who makes contact with Penny – the life of her sister- in exchange for Penny spying on the Warden of their country and delivering the information for thirty days. If she fails to fulfil her obligations, her soul belongs to Malin. Seeing no other solution, Penny signs it with her blood. But now she will have to find ways to travel illegally night after night as well as means to spy on the Warden. If that weren’t enough, her private burnings begin to attract the attention – of the Warden’s future-weaver, the Spinner, the Warden’s Gilded guards and, as her sister returns to the world of the living, the Rebellion Penny had no idea existed. Torn between all the agencies in this power game, she keeps travelling between Life and Death, revealing more of the secrets, trying to understand what’s going on, who she can trust and find it in her heart what will be the right thing to do.

Katherine J. Adams draws a very sensual word. People and places in Penny’s perception are always connected with smells. The Warden has forbidden bright colours in this world, so whenever Penny sees some, especially in Death, where there aren’t supposed to be any, it is like another assault on hers and our senses. And, of course, there is the whole procedure of the burning and a few ways to achieve it – from real fire to magical poisons. I really liked how Adams played with the traditional trope of witches who were persecuted and burnt. Here, burning is part of a deal, part of the destiny, and the young witches are specifically trained to endure pain. It is still torture and punishment, but it is a chosen one in some sense. There are some heightened moments when Penny, having only witnessed the burnings before, has to perform it all on her own. I wish we were also shown how the young witches are being trained because it isn’t a small feat to be able to burn without issuing a sound.

As I mentioned before, the book is rather atmospheric and full of vibes. There are different types of magic and witches, covens which detest each other and cooperate only on the Warden’s orders, mysterious Gilded who go through a cruel process of soul detachment in order to serve the Warden, crystals, fog-wraiths, Grimoires, the cute and lovely and simultaneously deadly book sprites. Adams gives snapshots of the Creation myth of confrontation between the Dark Mother and the Sorcerer and plays with the familiar stories of signing away one’s soul and travelling through the underworld. There is a lot going on, to the point that I was a bit lost a couple of times with the magic rules, and there were moments when I wished some of the things were foreshadowed or explained more. In a way, it is a problem of the chosen first-person narration, which limits us to only what Penny is experiencing.

It is a wicked and igniting story with chases, romances and even love triangles. The main villain, the Warden, however, looks solely dark and malevolent, like in the old type of bad guy from the fairy tales. I wish there was more to show why he became like that. There are a few other things that could have got a more thorough explanation, f.ex. Penny’s father’s story. It is always interesting to see the perspective of someone who learns things as a child and starts questioning them later (like Penny does), but then, in a story, it may also sound rather abrupt when the status quo changes.

Nonetheless, Tonight, I Burn is only the first book in the Thorn trilogy. Despite the adventures and clashes Penny goes through, the major confrontation is ahead of us. We’ll see where Katherine J. Adams takes us next.

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