How To Hang A Witch by Adriana Mather

The Blurb On The Back:

The trials of high school start to feel like a modern-day witch hunt for Samantha Mather, who has all the wrong connections to Salem’s past … 

When a centuries-old curse is rekindled, Sam finds herself at the centre of it.  Can she stop history repeating itself? 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

15-year-old Samantha Mather knows that her ancestor, Cotton Mather had a key role in prosecuting the Salem Witch Trials but having spent her whole life in New York, it’s never really been an issue.  Then her dad gets sick and falls into a coma.  With the medical bills mounting, Sam’s step-mother, Vivian, has to sell their New York apartment and move to Salem, to the house where Sam’s father grew up and which he inherited from his mother following her death.

Sam discovers that in Salem the Witch Trials have never been forgotten and the Mather name is still viewed with suspicion.  This is a particular problem at high school where a group of 5 students (Lizzie, John, Mary, Alicia and Susannah) are known as The Descendants because their ancestors were executed as witches and as a result, have taken a strong and instant dislike to Sam.

When strange things start happening to The Descendants, their relatives and others descended from those involved in the Witch Trials – suspicion builds that Sam is the cause of it.  Feeling unable to confide in Vivian and worried about her dad’s worsening condition, Sam’s only allies are her hot next-door-neighbour, Jaxon and his mother so the last thing she needs is the sudden appearance of a very attractive ghost with his own connection to the Trials …

Adriana Mather’s YA paranormal novel has a great premise but is spoilt by a tedious plot lacking consistent, internal logic; a tired, clichéd love triangle with two bland male leads; a main character who’s clumsy for no reason but also secretly special an often completely irrational; supporting characters who are little more than sketches and a ridiculous climax that had me rolling my eyes and ensued I won’t be reading the sequel.

I wanted to read this book because I was interested by the fact that Mather is herself descended from Cotton Mather and because she wrote this book to draw parallels between the mentality that created the Witch Trials and what happens when bullying is allowed to take place.  I suspect that the reason I was so disappointed is because I just didn’t think that Mather does justice either to her own heritage (turning it into some kind of Mary-Sue redemption fantasy) or bullying (reducing it to a group of irrational kids who are apparently liked solely because their ancestors were wrongly killed and are allowed to get away with it for plot reasons).

I found Sam to be a complete Mary-Sue – keen to tell the reader how sarcastic and streetwise she is as a New Yorker, she instead comes across as a shrill, at times hysterical lunatic prone to yelling at people for no reason and frequently falling over or into things (again, usually for no discernible reason) and then later turns out to have super magical powers that make her a rarity and therefore special.  Her relationship with Vivian had a lot of potential to be interesting – especially given that she mentions how they actually used to have a good relationship and had a lot in common – but there’s little of that relationship seen on the page, instead their relationship degenerating into slanging matches and emotional blackmail, the purposes of which becomes obvious early on when it comes to the climax of the book.

Although Mather tries to give reasons why the high school students are suspicious of her on arrival, the explanation never convinces because the leap they make (that Sam is some kind of witch) is not a conclusion that any normal person would reach for and it does kind of suggest that anyone living in Salem is a superstitious fool prone to hysteria.  Worse the same attitude is displayed by the teachers – not one of whom ever displays a single ounce of common sense or reason and in fact seem to equally hold Sam responsible for events that clearly have alternative explanations.  Even allowing for the fact that Sam likes to shout at people and loses her temper at the drop of a hat, it all has a manufactured feel to it that makes it difficult to empathise with her plight or believe in the supposedly febrile atmosphere of suspicion and superstition that Mather seems to be going for.

Sam’s awfulness makes it difficult to believe in why either Jaxon or Elijah are interested in her other than the fact that the plot demands it.  Neither character is particularly deeply drawn – both are pretty much defined by the fact that they’re hot and they love her for reasons.  The relationship with Elijah is particularly irritating given that Sam has no problem in believing that he’s a ghost (helped by the fact that he’s a ghost who can helpfully become solid).  Elijah is doubly grating because he’s defined by a “slightly British accent” which means he’s unable to use contractions, but even though he died as an 18-year-old Puritan, he has managed to get over his upbringing to criticise elements of it and snog a younger girl when the plot demanded it (also worth pointing out that because only Sam can see him, a snog scene in front of other people must have been really weird to witness and yet no one remarks on the fact that she’s basically tonguing blank space).  It’s also worth mentioning that he’s supposedly not been interested in humans for a couple of hundred years, but still knows modern idioms when he needs to (at one point telling Sam sarcastically to “stay in school”, which just made it even harder for me to believe in him.

The Descendants are basically interchangeable Mean Girls (except for Susannah who is secretly nice) – so thinly drawn as to not be credible either as a threat and I really didn’t care if Sam saved them or not.  I found the historical allusions confusing because Mather seems to assume that the reader knows the main players and families in the Witch Trials, which may be true if you’re American but doesn’t work for readers in other characters (this is in part mitigated by an author’s note at the end but by that point it was too late for me).

Ultimately I just found this to be a really disappointing read and it was a real effort for me to get through to the end.  As such, while there’s a set-up for a sequel, I definitely will not be reading it.

HOW TO HANG A WITCH will be released in the United Kingdom on 4th January 2018.  Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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