The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous witch trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam and her stepmother are not exactly welcomed with open arms. Sam is the descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those trials and almost immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were?
If dealing with that weren’t enough, Sam also comes face to face with a real live (well technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff. But soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries old curse affecting anyone with ties to the trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and find a way to work with the Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first accused witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history may be about to repeat itself.
My Take: I find myself drawn to YA urban fantasy/paranormal (even though I’m definitely not in that demographic) yet often find myself frustrated by most of these books due to many of the same issues (read: pet peeves). The characters are juvenile even for teens. Most of the plots focus on high school antics and drama. The books utilize some of most overused clichéd characters, namely the “boy next door,” the “bad boy,” some “mean girls” for good measure, and “dumb jocks” to even it all out. Normally one or more parent or parent figure is absent, ill, or deceased. And if there is any romantic sentiments expressed between characters, it’s always in the spirit of insta-love. To be fair, I have found some diamonds in the rough, hence why I continue to peruse this genre, though my interest is starting to wane.
Unfortunately, some of these same issues/pet peeves plagued this novel, but it had enough intrigue in its tone and mystery element to keep me from formally marking it as a DNF. Here, we have lead protagonist, Samantha Mather (Sam for short), whose only memorable features are her smart mouth and her relation to Cotton Mather, a leading (and historical) figure in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Naturally, this makes Sam a person of interest at her school and the community of Salem at large where she has just arrived with her step-mother. Unfortunately, this also causes her to be the unwilling enemy of a group of Goths who call themselves The Descendants.
No, these Descendants purport to be the ancestors of murdered witches (not the offspring of famous Disney villains, sadly), so naturally Sam becomes their number one target. Wow – talk about not letting bygones be bygones.
All snarkiness aside though, I thought this novel was fair – not poor, not great, and not even good. It’s just an average YA paranormal read that, to its credit, manages to work in some actual history, which was one aspect I enjoyed. In the same way, the setting and atmosphere were nicely rendered and provided a good backdrop for the story. This might be a small thing, but I appreciate novels that spend time establishing tone through their physical surroundings. Having characters interact with their environment and living spaces gives any story a certain level of realism as it’s easy to envision what’s going on. (Also, as another positive side note, I think the cover art for this novel is really cool and adds to the overall eerie vibe.)
That being said, the story’s atmosphere and setting could only carry it so far for me. Character-wise, we’ve seen all of these tropes before and not much (if anything) is done to try to circumvent these or even poke fun at them in a satirical way. Sam isn’t very interesting in and of herself and the only noteworthy thing about her is that she has family history in Salem. Otherwise, the rest of the cast was all but faceless and relied too much on familiar cliches, thus lacking any originality in their development or respective personalties. While it is interesting to see how Sam solves the mystery behind some of the ghostly events occurring in Salem (though, honestly, what other events would occur in Salem?), the plot becomes bogged down with the typical YA standbys, including insta-love. Not to mention the chief villain is fairly easy to spot even before the final reveal. Naturally, I won’t reveal who it is, but I will say that the infamous tainted pastry incident tipped me off.
I did manage to get through 60% of this book before I started skimming, but even before then my attention started to wander. On a positive note, I think the pacing is decent and it helps that the chapters stay short (at least on the Kindle version). The story’s physical setting is rendered beautifully against a historical backdrop, and the eerie tone is nicely balanced, neither tastelessly overdone nor carelessly phoned in. However, the characters are carbon copies of the typical tropes you’re likely to run across in any random YA novel, paranormal or otherwise. This, combined with a rather easy-to-spot villain, ultimately made for an average reading experience.
In closing, and seeing as this novel deals with witches, which makes me think of Halloween, which makes me think of candy, allow me to liken this novel to candy corn:
…it’s visually appealing, easy to consume, and inoffensive. Now, I love candy corn, despite the fact it’s just empty calories. But sometimes empty calories are okay. In the same way, I enjoy books that are shallow and generic as opposed to deep and meaty. Hence why I didn’t hate this novel and can fairly state that it was okay. However, I do feel it’s for a very specific audience who tends to gravitate towards these types of books and who can look past contrived plot devices and cliched characters.
Content: Content-wise, this novel is geared more for teens rather than anyone younger or older. (Please note that I did skim through several chapters, so there might have been content issues that I overlooked.)
Language – There is some profanity, ranging from PG-level words to a few harsher profanities though they aren’t pervasive.
Violence – This novel does spend a great deal of time focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, so recounts of real-life killings and executions of both people and animals is present but nothing is relayed in a gory, graphic manner. Other murders in the novel’s present day settings do occur, just to note.
Sexual Content – Sexual content is mild as some characters kiss, flirt, and talk about “hooking up.” Sam also unconsciously makes a suggestive remark to a guy (though she doesn’t mean it in a sexual way).
Thematic Material – There is at least one scene where the Descendants attempt to perform a seance and other aspects of real-world witchcraft are present; therefore, readers who aren’t keen on books that depict real-world occultism (as opposed to fantasy magic) might want to steer clear.
Overall, How to Hang a Witch has an interesting premise where history meshes with a fictional present day and that lightly explores the concept of allowing the past to dictate the present and future though no deep moral or philosophical food for thought is ever offered. Instead, this is a typical YA novel with the typical YA fixin’s, which may or may not be to every reader’s liking depending. Thus, if you’re hunting for an average, readable tale about real-life witches, then this might be a good pick. But if you’re tired of the same ol’ YA cliches and predictable story lines, then it might be best to skip this visit to Salem.