Witches get a bad rap in culture, history, and the media. Centuries of religious persecution and superstition (not to mention misogyny) have often cast witches as evil. Crones, temptresses, and shape-shifting demons. However with the rise of neo-paganism in America – and the popularity of fantasy novels – the face of the witch has changed over the years. And there have been many fantasy novels written that are sympathetic to the character of the witch. To that end we have compiled a list of genre books where the witches are the main characters. Although many of these books portray witchcraft and magic as a power capable of good or evil, there are no evil witches here. Let’s take a look at some of the best books starring witches, perfect for your spooky season reading lists.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Image via MacMillan Publishing
This book is the first in Arden’s Winternight trilogy based on Russian folklore. Our witch is the main character of Vasilisa, who abides by the old ways that her mother taught her. She is a wild creature more comfortable in the forest than the city. She defies the Church to leave offerings for the spirits of the forest and home. (This series also has some of the best depiction of the Fae that I’ve seen in recent fantasy novels). But she is drawn into an eternal battle between old gods. And there is the ever-present threat of the Church that wants to burn her for her abilities. Steeped in mythology and history, this trilogy is richly evocative and compelling.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Photo by Emily O’Donnell
One of my favorite books of 2020! The Once and Future Witches is set in an alternate history version of America where witchcraft in Salem was real. Juxtaposed against the suffragette movement in the 1890’s, the novel follows three sisters who work to bring witching back to the world. The novel is a powerful and timely story about women’s power and how it has been stripped away by men. A beautiful and compelling story of magic, sisterhood, and equal rights. If you’re not convinced yet, read my review of The Once & Future Witches for a more in-depth look at what this novel has in store.
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Image via Harper Collins
Fun fact: The Wizard of Oz books (yes there is more than one!) were the first books I ever read as a child. But even then, I wanted to know more about the witches of Oz. Well Gregory Maguire changed the genre forever when he published Wicked in 1995. The story is a revisionist history of Oz that focuses on Elphaba, the “Wicked Witch of the West” and Galinda who would become “The Good Witch.”
Maguire expertly skewers the binary between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ when it comes to magic. Elphaba is a sympathetic character who does some terrible things, but she is never truly an evil figure. Wicked brings some much needed nuance and characterization to the iconic character from The Wizard of Oz. The book was so popular that it inspired a long-running musical of the same name. Wicked takes an iconic ‘evil’ witch and makes her human, and it is a revelation.
A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan
Image via Hachette Books
A family saga that spans generations, A Secret History of Witches brings multiple witches to life as the main characters in this novel. Drawing from historical events and rooted in traditional practices, the novel follows the witches of the Orchire family from the 1800’s up to WWII. Strong mother-daughter bonds are at play in this novel, and the danger and beauty of magic is fully realized. Author Louisa Morgan followed up this bestselling novel with two more books in the same vein: The Witch’s Kind and The Age of Witches.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Image via Hachette Books
Many people are familiar with the mythology of Circe from The Odyssey. She is the most famous witch of the epic, the one who turned men into pigs and seduced Odysseus. But author Madeline Miller brings us a feminist twist on the character. The novel follows Circe’s perspective on the events that made her famous, as well as her tragic backstory. Circe is not only a witch, she is also a goddess. And Miller’s epic style makes her a compelling character that finally gets a voice of her own. This was one of my favorite books of 2019, and an acclaimed bestseller.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Image via Penguin Books
Akata Witch is an early novel by acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor. It follows a young girl who doesn’t fit in anywhere, and she soon learns that her latent magical abilities may be the reason why. She joins a secret organization called the Leopard Society and gets a crash-course in magic. Soon she is practicing witchcraft and hunting down serial killers in this genre-bending novel. Okorafor followed up this bestselling novel with Akata Warrior in 2017. A brilliant and transformative novel, Akata Witch is unlike any other on the list.
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Image via Harper Collins
Discworld author Terry Pratchett wrote many books in his long-running series about witches. In Discworld, the witches are powerful but they are also painfully and comically human. Equal Rites was the first Discworld novel to focus on Pratchett’s witches, and like so many of his books it cleverly subverts the reader’s expectation. This novel follows Eskarina Smith who is the eighth child of an eighth son. Expected to be a son herself, she would have been destined to become a wizard had she been born a man. But Esk will not be denied her magical birthright, and she seeks out Granny Weatherwax, an older witch who is first introduced in this novel and becomes a recurring Discworld character. Equal Rites is a comedic and thought-provoking take on magical inheritance, and the legacy of witches.
The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
Image via Penguin Books
The only ‘horror’ book on this list is The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, one of the classic novels of the genre. The novel kicks off The Mayfair Witches series, and is another family saga of magic and mayhem. The story follows generations of the Mayfair family who obtain their magical abilities from a powerful spirit known as Lasher. Although there is plenty of horror and evil in the book, it is not the witches themselves (or even Lasher) who are inherently evil. The power that the family holds is utilized for both good and evil, and The Witching Hour is one of Rice’s most nuanced and compelling books.
It is followed up by additional novels in the saga including Lasher and Taltos which take this witchcraft to a whole new and very weird place. Still, Rice’s impact on the genre is undeniable and The Witching Hour was one of my favorite books as a teenager, largely because it was a book that portrayed witches as human.
This list is only a start to the many great novels featuring witches as the main characters. What is your favorite book starring witches? Let us know by joining the conversation with Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today!
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.