Alchemy—turning base metals to gold, the transformation of something ordinary into something extraordinary. One bucketful of water contains more atoms than there are bucketsful of water in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s just like magic. Diamond and graphite are both pure carbon. If that is true, then anything is possible.

       —When My Heart was Wicked, Tricia Stirling

Three years ago, Lacy Fin’s mother—fiercely protective one moment and flat-out abusive the next—abandoned her. Lacy, who was well on her way to becoming very much like Cheyanne—angry, cold, cruel, and very willing to use black magic against her enemies—was sent to live with her father and stepmother.

Life with them is everything that life with Cheyanne was not: warm, loving, gentle, stable. They are vegetarians, play music, keep a garden, and live in a way that celebrates the magic that “exists in the everyday.” They shop at the local Farmer’s Market, are friends with a group of back-to-the-lander pagan neo-hippies called the Treehuggers, and have a love for the romanticized cultural appropriation* that one generally associates with the New Age movement: lots of Tibetan prayer flags and teepees. Lacy flourishes living with them, becomes comfortable with herself and with the world, and treats others—and herself—with kindness and love.

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Then her father dies, and Cheyanne regains custody. And Lacy, who has blossomed so much over the last few years, begins to wither into what she was before: self-loathing, miserable, hateful. Tricia Stirling’s When My Heart was Wicked is about surviving abuse, becoming whole, and the hard work it takes to end a cycle. It’s about trying to choose protection over revenge; forgiveness over guilt; and how wanting to own something is not the same as loving it. For the most part, it’s beautifully written—Lacy’s connections between science, nature, and magic are lovely, her imagery is vivid and bright, her pain is searing and visceral—and the fantasy elements can be read as literal or metaphor. Lacy’s struggle between dark and light is distinctly lacking in shades of grey, but I don’t think most readers will mind.

It’s not a flawless debut, but it marks Stirling as one to watch.

Two related titles:

The Blood Keeper, by Tessa Gratton

This is the companion to Blood Magic, about a family of magic users who use blood to cast their spells. Like When My Heart was Wicked, it’s a lush, dark fantasy with a strong thread about the natural world, but unlike When My Heart was Wicked, it’s SUPER romantic and EPICALLY heartbreaking.

Season of the Witch, by Mariah Fredericks

Though they’re entirely different in tone—the Fredericks book feels more like Mean Girls/The Craft—they both deal with revenge magic. (Any excuse to recommend this one, as I feel it’s never gotten the attention it deserves.)


*This, unfortunately, rubs off on Lacy, whose interest in botany leads to an excruciating monologue about the Maidu: “...I wish a real live Maidu woman would come out of the bushes and teach me. We’d weave a basket to carry sorrow for all the old ways that are gone, and then another one to carry hope.” It’s all in keeping with the characterization, but it’s still a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard moment.

If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.