Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley (book review)
GENRE: YA Fantasy
LENGTH: 368 pages
A witch (Tamsin) and a girl made of magic (Wren) team up together to take down a dark witch and save the land from a plague.
The novel's focus is primarily on three characters; Tamsin the banished witch, Wren the source, and Tamsin's less powerful twin sister Marlena. Tamsin and Wren go from reluctant allies to romantic interests throughout the course of the novel so I would classify them in the trope of enemies to lovers. Wren is the sweet in the title as she shows through her actions that she is selfless, sees the best in people, and loves simple pleasures like picking wildflowers. Tamsin, meanwhile, is the bitter as she has been cursed to be unable to feel love and cannot return home. The two are opposites but they work well together because they respect and bring out the best in one another.
Tamsin and Marlena's relationship is explored through the eyes of both sisters despite Marlena being deceased (more on that in the next section). I thought this was smart because it shows how lopsided their relationship was with Tamsin believing them to be extremely close but Marlena actually resenting her sister.
One thing I really loved was how Tamsin and Wren muse that their romance may last forever or may be fleeting but either way its impact and importance is not diminished. So often we see budding romances portrayed in novels as a great, everlasting love and that's not always realistic. It was a refreshing take.
My only complaints were how Wren and Tamsin's relationship could be a tad too cheesy for my taste and also Wren's relationship with her father. Wren tells us she loves her father but we read on page that she feels held back by him and cares for him more out of a sense of duty than anything else. I don't necessarily have a problem with Wren feeling burdened by caring for her father, but don't then try to sell me on the idea that she so values the love she has for him.
NARRATIVE STYLE/PACING The novel is told from the alternating third person perspectives of Wren and Tamsin. There are also excerpts from Marlena's dairy. The inclusion of diary entries is something I see a lot in books and I think that's because it's such an easy way to get to know a character we don't see on page. It's not groundbreaking, but it's used effectively here.
Tamsin's inability to love is shown to impact everything. Not only can she not love people, but she can't taste or smell or see colors like she used to, either. This made the curse feel a lot more nuanced than I at first expected it to be and I applaud Tooley for thinking outside the box when crafting this curse.
This novel is a standalone which is uncommon in the fantasy genre. The story doesn't feel rushed at any point, though. There is enough of the world and its history established to ground the reader in the setting and enough of the characters' pasts explored to get a good understanding of them. Wren and Tamsin's connection doesn't feel sudden and jarring like I feared it might but develops gradually throughout the novel. The ending is open but hopeful which is a good balance to strike. It leaves the reader feeling satisfied but also, if Tooley wanted, she could write a sequel about Wren and Tamsin's futures.
WORLD BUILDING This was my favorite part of the novel. As a fantasy lover I am always on the lookout for novels with world building that feels unlike others I've read before. The idea of there being people made of magic (sources) who can see and hear magic was unlike anything I've read before. It was such a cool concept that worked perfectly with the story Tooley was trying to tell. Another really awesome aspect was how dark magic drained the earth. The idea of magic having consequences is common in fantasy but here we see its devastating effects that serve as the novel's foundation and raise the stakes.
Tooley did a good job of explaining the history of the world and its magic system. I love mirroring in novels and that can be seen here in the rise of a new dark witch much like there was several decades prior to the events of the novel. Just as this fractured relations between the ordinary folks and the magical ones before so too is it damaging trust this time around.
FINAL THOUGHTS While fantasy is my favorite genre I generally don't gravitate towards witch stories. I was drawn in by the pretty cover. When I read the synopsis I was hopeful this could change my perspective on witches. It became one of my most anticipated reads of the last year and I'm happy to say I was not wrong in my faith in this debut. Tooley demonstrates a lot of promise as an author here and I am 100% going to pick out whatever she publishes next.
FINAL RATING: 4.5⭐️