TLDR: ★ ★ ★ ★ Languid and lyrical, I was enthralled by this atmospheric tale of a rain-soaked coastal Oregon town cursed by three witchy sisters — and all the riveting mystery and heartbreak their 200-year-old curse brings, even if it was sometimes a bit too predictable.
Thanks to my love of witches in fiction, an absolutely stunning book cover, and a description calling it "Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic meets the Salem Witch trials," The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw has been on my can't wait to read list since last fall. And while this was much more poignant and not at all the lighthearted fun of the movies it's compared to — the only similarities being a trio of witchy sisters and a curse — this was still well worth the wait.
Set amid the misty haze of a coastal Oregon town, The Wicked Deep follows Penny Talbot as her junior year ends and the locals prepare for Swan season: a three-week period in June when the town is besieged by tourists morbidly eager to witness the curse of the Swan sisters. According to legend, three girls' bodies are inhabited by the spirits of three sisters killed for witchery 200 years ago so they can lure young men into the ocean's depths, drowning the boys as punishment for the town's sins against them.
The local teens have their own Swan season rituals, involving drunken bonfires on the beach and girls testing fate by going for a swim, daring a sister to take them. For Penny, these rituals are usually to be avoided, but this summer is different: her friend drags her to the bonfire party, where she's saved from a handsy drunk by the brooding new boy in town, Bo.
Though he's an outsider, Penny hires him to help out on the lighthouse island where she lives alone with her mother — her father having vanished three years ago — thus charting a new course for the summer that brings love, but also builds to a series of revelations both haunting and sad.
The Wicked Deep
YA Paranormal Fantasy
RELEASE DATE: March 6, 2018
HARDCOVER: 320 pages
PUBLISHER: Simon Pulse
Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic meets the Salem Witch trials in this haunting story about three sisters on a quest for revenge—and how love may be the only thing powerful enough to stop them.
Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow…
Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.
Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.
Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.
Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.
But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself.
What I loved...
Languid and lyrical in tone, this reminded me of Victoria Schwab's The Near Witch, only with rain and mist (and a much stronger plot) instead of fog and wind. This was such an atmospheric read, I could practically feel the ocean spray on my face and taste the salty air on my tongue.
I adored this small coastal town setting: the decaying lighthouse island and orchard that was Penny's home, the boat she traveled on instead of a car, the whimsy of the forgetful cakes bakery, all of Sparrow's mythology. It felt grounded and real, like a place that could actually exist. The kind of place tinged with just enough magic and myth to make me want to visit in the weeks leading up to the summer solstice.
As for the characters, I found Penny to be a bit too distant and angsty to really connect to — which I think was ultimately necessary in the end — but I loved Bo. He, too, was secretive and inscrutable, but still chivalrous in a non-creepy teenage boy way, thanks to his rugged charm and quiet vulnerability. All of which anchored the "falling for each other" part of the romance with warm fuzzies even though it all happened so fast. It's insta-love, believably done (and therefore not annoying).
But there was so much more to this than teen romance! While the main tale is in Penny's first person POV, you get to know the Swan sisters in short but captivating interludes in between. Meanwhile, there are mysteries to unravel in the present day: what girls are playing host to the three vengeful ghosts? Which boys will be found dead in the sea? What is Bo hiding and what really brings him to Sparrow? Even the mystery of what happened to Penny's father added another layer of intrigue that kept me turning pages.
What I didn't love...
As I said, I had a hard time connecting to Penny; she felt distant even though we were in her head, more like a hand-wringing observer than a vibrant teen girl experiencing it all, and her refusal to share relevant information with her friends was frustrating. In the end, though, this didn't matter so much as there are twists that change the way you view just about everything over the course of the book, even if the biggest of these was somewhat predictable.
Luckily, this wasn't the kind of book where enjoyment hinged on the shock value of any one twist. The story's suspense and the exquisite atmosphere of this world with all of its secrets and legends were far more than enough to make this a compelling and wistfully haunting tale that felt like a gentle slide into the poignant, wicked deep.