This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
08.08.19 / Gollancz / Crime-Mystery / Paperback / 464pp / 978-1473225756
Target Audience: Readers interested in murder mysteries with a twist. For fans of crime and of witchcraft (or both). For those who can handle enormous tension and a story of persecution, of motherhood and small town mentalities and suspicions. For people looking for a book they want to be talking about for a long time.
To Detective Maggie Knight, the death of Sanctuary’s star quarterback seems to be a tragic accident.
Then the rumours start.
Everyone knows his ex-girlfriend is the daughter of a witch – and she was there when he died.
Bereaved mother Abigail will stop at nothing until she has justice for her dead son. Her best friend Sarah will do everything in her power to protect her accused daughter. And the women share a secret that could shatter their lives.
As accusations fly, it falls to Maggie to find out the truth before her investigation spirals out of control.
And the town becomes no sanctuary at all.
My Review of Sanctuary
Thank you for coming by to check out my review of Sanctuary. There are a few spoilers in this review but I have tried to leave as much context out as possible to avoid it revealing too much about the narrative.
V.V. James’ Sanctuary is an outstanding crime-mystery novel that explores the influences of magic on a town consumed by fear, lies, deceit and prejudice. VVJ has delivered a furious and nerve-wrenching narrative which takes the reader down the dark path of grief, blame, manipulation and hatred that seeps and swirls around the very fabric of Sanctuary until everyone in it is at breaking point. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of magic and witches but the way that VVJ has implemented and explored the subject was absolutely fascinating. Until it gets ugly. Once the momentum kicks in, there is no stopping it until all is revealed.
A death rocks the small town of Sanctuary. Daniel Whitman, the town’s all-star athlete and golden boy, has died of a fatal neck injury that is deemed a tragic accident. An unfortunate event at a party where kids were letting loose and having a good time. The town is grieving and the case needs to be put to rest so they can gain closure. That is until Harper Fenn, daughter of the local witch Sarah Fenn, is accused of murdering Daniel using witchcraft. A crime that, due to an ancient law, holds the death penalty.
Detective Maggie Knight, an out-of-town detective, has arrived to make sure the case is resolved fairly. The case seems open-and-shut. A boy fell to his death. Though Detective Knight can’t ignore the allegations of witchcraft. Or any other accusations that are being pinned to Harper, Daniel and those involved. The Detective sets out to find the truth of what happened that night and why the town is slowly turning on the Fenns, people who use to look to Sarah for help or for protection.
Details of the case are leaked to the press and the only word on everyone’s tongue is witchcraft. Abigail Whitman doesn’t want to believe that Sarah, her closest friend, her sister, would keep Harper’s magic a secret. Magic that could have killed her boy. Abigail begins to doubt the good influence Sarah has had on the town. She reconsiders that night six years ago when she needed Sarah the most. Grief turns to anger, to betrayal and then to wrath. Sarah and Harper Fenn, the witches, must pay for what they’ve done to her family and the town of Sanctuary. Detective Knight is working furiously to uncover the truth of what actually happened to Daniel but the town are already beginning to cast their own judgement on who’s guilty and are ready to act upon their fears and start a literal witch hunt.
All I can say is wow. I was 100% invested in this story as it was incredible from the outset and the intensity and savagery kept my jaw firmly on the floor for the whole duration. From the small town crime beginnings to the raging inferno of an ending, I was transfixed. Sanctuary was awesome in so many ways with plenty of dark and complex moments to satisfy and unnerve the reader. Firstly I want to clarify that Sanctuary is very much a small town murder mystery novel. If you are uninterested in witches then it won’t dampen your experience as a crime reader, only enhance it.
The crime elements are strong with all the nitty gritty you would expect from tight community being shaken up by rumours and deaths. Detective Maggie Knight was a great presence in the novel who tries to do her job by the book not matter how unbelievable the circumstances get. It was great to see her as the objective guiding force in between all the chaos.
I would give Sanctuary 4 stars just based on VVJ’s curious and eventful writing. The 5th star is for the portrayal of witches and witchcraft. It was compelling. VVJ emphasises her depiction of magic is not based solely on any real world beliefs but of her own design which is respectful and well thought out. Their power is monitored and utilised to heal and guide those who need it. Though Sarah has been known to alter many other problems the community requires which crosses some lines ethically, morally and legally.
Sarah Fenn is the only witch in Sanctuary as her daughter doesn’t have the gift as it is commonly skips a generation. She knows Harper is not capable of this act but convincing the town is a momentous task. Watching Sarah’s narrative develop and all the conflicts she has about her gifts and how she wants to help those she loves and stick to the rules was unsettling. Witches have a fragile truce with humanity but are sometimes the subject of hate crimes and derogatory language amongst other ill treatment. I appreciated Sarah’s approach to this reality. Though as events continue to grind her down, that stability begins to fail and as the threats to her daughter’s safety increase, Sarah has to walk a fine line to keep her strength at bay.
V.V. James’ attention to detail was amazing, second only to her ability to ramp up tension and passion. Abigail was a driving force that repeatedly surprised me. Watching Abigail’s hatred for magic, witches and ultimately Sarah intensify to the level that it did was a hard thing to stomach. That dam of grief and despair giving way to retribution and revenge. Abigail’s path towards persecuting Sarah is rife with doubt, lies, conflict, fear and hatred. I have seen escalation in many novels but Sanctuary beats all of them by a mile.
V.V. James has done an impressive job with cultivating a tension that sits in your throat, in your stomach too, and it becomes almost unbearable to witness. I was so on edge by the time I got to the conclusion I was basically yelling at the book, numerous emotions hitting me all at once. Abigail is a tough character to analyse because she is fuelled by the loss of a child and the memories that make him special. There are many edges to her vendetta against Sarah, which makes it difficult to see where the jealousy begins and devastation ends which I thought was a clever touch.
There are an abundance of relevant and meaningful themes present in Sanctuary including maternal instincts, sisterhood, relationships in turmoil, power, abuse, assault and deception. There are plenty of small town secrets, agendas, bonds and manipulations to witness and relationships that deteriorate due to uncertainty. A town that has a shady history to explore. I especially liked the investigation into magical crimes which I thought brought the two principal ideas in the story together well, even if it is quite brief at times.
V. V. James’ writing is dynamic and nuanced, switching between each main character’s point of view and keeping the pace with ease that also felt coherent and palpable. The story is developed with emotion, irrationality and impulsive fear. It was excellent and I hope the possible nudge towards a sequel at the end was as real as it seemed. I can only hope. Sanctuary is a must-read so now is the time to get involved.
About V. V, James
V.V. James is the author (as Vic James) of the contemporary fantasy trilogy GILDED CAGE, TARNISHED CITY, and BRIGHT RUIN. GILDED CAGE is a 2018 World Book Night pick and a Radio 2 Book Club selection. V.V. worked as an investigative producer for Channel 4 News and now directs documentaries for BBC1 and BBC2.