With the call for more diversity in publishing – either sincere or manufactured – there has been a surge in Caribbean-centered fantasy releases. Witches Steeped in Gold – with its beautiful cover, an intriguing premise, and the high anticipation of readers had me cautiously excited.
From the first page, I was plunged into a vast and vivid matriarchal society with rich cultural magic set in a universe that is undeniably, uniquely crafted. We follow two witches, Jazmyne and Ira, and how they fight on opposing sides of historical political tensions between Alumbrar and Obeah witches. Told from both perspectives, we see them form an unlikely alliance to get rid of a mutual threat. It’s easy to muddle POVs when writing equally strong characters with intense motives and drive, but Smart manages a crisp distinction. Ira has a quick wit to match her quick reflexes while Jazmyne is calmer in her calculations and regal is her mannerisms.
This book is an impressive example of how to present a matriarchal society without playing into a sort of caricature of feminism. There is a cast of strong women, both main and secondary, that do not play into overt masculine traits to command respect. Even more impressive are the male characters, present and useful.
As a Jamaican, accustomed to the works of White Western writers, the exploration of the culture without a glorified encyclopedia to break down its otherness (w.r.t. popular media) was refreshing. Even the separation from the norm of centering our narratives around the White colonizer was unexpected but wholly welcomed. From there, Smart still provides a narrative that shows the importance of penning history without the sole testimony of the victors. Presenting this world unapologetically does force you to slow your pace and pay attention to the large volume of details in the world. Though it proves to feel dense in the first half of the book, this patience allows you to see the layers of intention in every action and power play. There are themes of stolen power, fighting for your people, and searching for purpose. And there is no shying away from the brutality that inevitable sacrifice incurs. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of action that happens “off-screen”, making the character’s actions feel mostly reactionary.
As the first book in a series, there is a lot of promise for what is to come. With that being said, this could prove disappointing to some readers, as the story reads like an extended introduction.
Regardless, Witches Steeped in Gold is a great addition to the non-North American SFF catalogue with sincerity and no harmful exoticizing of the Jamaican culture.