Circe by Madeline Miller (myth retold)
Circe is an outsider among gods, goddesses, and minor deities. Her voice, unlike that of any other immortal, sets her apart, as does her witchery. The gods decree that Circe be exiled to the island of Aiaia for the rest of her immortal life. On her beautiful and lonely island, Circe learns her craft, interrupted by the occasional mortal or immortal visitor. When Odysseus’s ship lands on her island, everything changes for Circe. The most literary book on this list, Circe is a myth beautifully retold. Miller fleshes out a minor character in mythology, imagining a powerful, clever, and passionate woman who made her own way when she proved different from any other mortal or immortal to walk the earth.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (historical)
In 1865, Elsie Bainbridge, recently widowed after her husband’s sudden death, inherits her late husband’s English manor. The Elizabethan home was once a grand estate, but by Elsie’s day, it is in a state of decay. Elsie’s new home contains silent companions, wooden cut outs that resemble people. At first, she is merely spooked by the silent companions, but she soon suspects that they can move of their own accord. Elsie’s story is intertwined with that of Anne Bainbridge, the lady of the manor in the 1600s, who turned to witchcraft to conceive a child. Anne’s child, a mute girl named Hetta, is misunderstood in Anne’s view and evil in the eyes of others. This one is a must read for all fans of Gothic literature, as it contains creepy English estates, hints of both madness and the supernatural, and Victorian asylums. As a note, it is quite creepy and as close to horror as I, a total scaredy cat, am willing to read.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow
Seven years earlier, the Eastwood sisters–bookish Beatrice Belladonna, beautiful Agnes Amaranth, and impulsive James Juniper–are separated, and each sister blames her other sisters for the betrayal. In 1893, Juniper heads to New Salem when fleeing the law. There, she is reunited with her sisters and they awaken dormant magic. An alternate history where Salem village was burned to the ground with the witchcraft trials and a new town–New Salem the Sinless City–was founded, The Once and Future Witches tells the story of witches and witch hunters, suffragists, and workers’ rights movements, blended with folklore. This was possibly my favorite book on this list. As a history nerd, I enjoyed spotting fictionalized versions of real historical figures and events, and I appreciated the intersectional feminism of the story.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Sally and Gillian Owens were shaped by three forces: the witchy aunts who raised them in a small Massachusetts town, the isolation of going to school in a town where they were also believed to be witches, and cautionary tale of the drug store girl, who acquired a love potion from the aunts, only to regret her decision once she was a married woman with a husband who followed her everywhere. Sally grew up cautious while Gillian grew up wild, but the Owens sisters agreed on two things: to avoid magic and love all of their days. Gillian left town as soon as she became an adult, to chase men that she didn’t love. Sally forgot all about the warning of the drug store girl and devoted herself to creating a family. When the sisters are in their thirties, Gillian shows up at Sally’s house with her dead boyfriend in the car, and Jimmy’s unnatural death proves to be the one problem they cannot solve without magic. In this beautifully written novel, Hoffman has created a world where life and love are mysteries even to witches.
What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine
Maisie is not permitted to touch or be touched by anything living. If she touches a living thing, whether it is a leaf or an animal, it will die instantly. If she touches a dead thing, it comes back to life. She grows up in her ancestral home, raised by her father, Peter, and their housekeeper, Mrs. Blott, governed by an endless list of rules. As she has not been permitted to interact with others, she assumes her condition is part of being a child and that when she’s an adult, she too will be able to touch things without consequence. It is not until she spies, outside the gates of her home, a line of schoolchildren holding hands while walking that she realizes she is alone in her condition. After the death of Mrs. Blott and the disappearance of Peter, Maisie goes searching for both her father and the story of the woods behind her home, where women in her family have gone missing for centuries. A boy and a young man join her in her quest, and Maisie is thrilled to experience male interest for the first time, but only one of them is trustworthy.
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (historical)
When Beatrice Dunn arrives in New York City in 1880, she seeks employment at a mysterious tea shop. The tea shop is a favorite with society ladies who dabble in spiritualism, but Beatrice quickly learns that the owners, Adelaide and Eleanor, have real magic and so does she. As Beatrice begins to explore her powers, religious zealots wage an anti-magic campaign that threatens the tea shop. Throughout Manhattan, women rumored to have magical powers are going missing. When Beatrice becomes one of the missing, Eleanor and Adelaide must go in search of their protégé. McKay’s portrayal of late 19th century New York is compelling and original, and the story is an enjoyable fall read. Content warning: If you will be bothered by a negative portrayal of organized religion, skip this one. Every professing Christian in this novel is a jerk and one is a serial killer.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (1st of the All Souls Trilogy)
Diana Bishop, eager historian and reluctant witch, orders a rare alchemical book from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, not knowing that this book is coveted by the three supernatural races – witches, vampires, and daemons – or that the book had been missing over a century until she requested it. Once Diana, a hereditary but non-practicing witch, unlocks the magic of the text, she’s being pursued by supernatural beings, befriending a vampire, and learning about the mysterious death of her parents. The trilogy has many things going for it: a dark academia vibe, a love story, and a whimsical supernatural world that is as compelling as Harry Potter’s. Its primary weakness is a fairly generic vampire hero. Matthew is wealthy, well-dressed, patriarchal, possessive, and just not that interesting. In spite of him, this is a very enjoyable series.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A shy and friendless young boy meets Lettie Hempstock, the girl at the end of the lane, after a local tragedy and she becomes his first friend. Like him, Lettie is a solitary child without friends her own age and a little strange. She refers to the pond at the end of the lane as her ocean, and the boy is unsure of whether she believes the pond to be the ocean or if it is simply make believe. Unlike the boy, Lettie is well loved at home, and the narrator is drawn to the Hempstock house, where everyone is kind to him. The boy begins seeing magic around him, in the practices of the Hempstock women and in strange events around town. When the boy begins to suspect that his new nanny is actually a supernatural being, and his family won’t believe him, he turns to his new friends for help. This was my first time reading Neil Gaiman, and it reminded me a little of the Roald Dahl books of my childhood, but with more grown up content. A great read if you enjoy child narrators and fantasy.
Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA mystery)
La Cachette, Louisiana is an island so isolated there is no cell service or internet access. The residents make their living from the tourist trade, marketing themselves as the Psychic Capital of the World, selling psychic readings, crystals, and love potions. Seventeen years ago in La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer, a first for an island with only 100 full time residents. They call themselves the Summer Children. Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before. A few months before Grey returns to the island for her seventeenth summer, her best friend, Elora, goes missing. Grey returns determined to learn what happened to Elora, only to find that no one in a town of psychics seems to have any insight as to what happened the night her friend went missing. As Grey begins to dig, she starts confronting all of La Cachette’s secrets, such as the death of the twins, Ember and Orli, thirteen years earlier and the legend of the local bogeyman, Dempsey Fontenot.
Beautiful Creatures (YA series) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (YA)
Gatlin, South Carolina is a town of churches, debutantes, and Civil War nostalgia. Experience a tragedy and everyone will bring you a casserole. Step outside the prescribed order and become an outcast. High school student Ethan Wate, who is mourning his mother’s death, cannot wait to leave Gatlin and no longer be known as the boy without a mama. When a new girl, Lena Duchannes, arrives in town, Ethan recognizes her as the girl who has been haunting his dreams. The two lonely teens are drawn to each other, and Ethan is drawn outside ordinary Gatlin and into a new world of the supernatural. Lena comes from a long line of Casters, and Ethan has no idea about the family curse that will change her upon her sixteenth birthday. With interesting main characters and excellent writing, the series is haunting and atmospheric and–most unfortunately–problematic. The books would have benefitted from a Black editor or beta reader to prevent racial stereotypes that shouldn’t have made their way into print in the 21st century. Which is sad because the books are otherwise gorgeous Southern gothics.
The Secret Circle (trilogy) by LJ Smith (YA)
When Cassie Blake moves from California to her mother’s childhood hometown of New Salem, Massachusetts, Cassie finds that the teens who live on her street somehow run the high school. Some are kind and idealistic while others are bullies, but none of them have ever been held accountable for their actions. Fascinated by these teens, Cassie becomes a member of their group, only to learn that she–and the rest of the children of Crowhaven Road–are the last in a long line of witches. In full disclosure, this is 100% a comfort read from my adolescence and as ‘90s YA as you can possibly get (supernatural love triangles!). In general, supernatural stories that are rooted in the Salem witchcraft trials can go very wrong in that they can minimize both what happened to perfectly innocent people and lessons that should be learned from these events. The Secret Circle somehow manages to build off the real history without minimizing the tragedy of what actually occurred. On the less positive side, no one talked about consent in the ‘90s, when this trilogy was written, and it shows here in the treatment of love spells.
Harry Potter (MG series) by JK Rowling
What can be said about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said? Unless you have been living under a rock since the late nineties (and if yes, I’m so sorry, climate change has made weather bonkers since then and current events are even worse, so return to your rock asap), you know the Harry Potter series is about a young boy who learns he is a wizard and grows up to battle the most evil wizard of his age. Drawing from mythology, Arthurian legend, and historical events, Harry’s story is an epic tale. Whether you love Harry Potter or love to hate it, JK Rowling has created a magical world that lives on in the modern imagination. I cannot say enough good things about the series, even though I have beef with Rowling’s stance on trans rights.