The two stories that tie for the best of the anthology are Tess Sharpe’s “The Heart in Her Hands” and Elizabeth May’s “Why They Watch Us Burn” because WOW. Both stories are f/f as well. Sharpe’s story, in which a young witch meets her soulmate and rejects him for the girl she’s always loved, dissects the idea of soulmates and what that means for free will. Meanwhile, May’s highly allegorical tale draws powerful parallels to how the media and awful people treat women who speak out against men who abuse them. In a labor camp where she’s been sent, the heroine falls for a fellow witch-prisoner and all the girls imprisoned there reclaim both their names and their powers in a blaze of glory. It’s amazing.
That’s not to say those are the only good stories because they aren’t. If your jam is closer to magical realism, Zoraida Cordova’s “Divine Are the Stars” (in which a matriarch’s heirs come to collect their inheritance and contend with a mother tree) and Tehlor Kay Mejia’s “Starsong” (in which a Latinx girl’s business of making star charts from her star-related abilities brings her into contact with a cute but skeptical girl) are both vivid, intelligent delights. I could dig into most every story and tell you why I like each one of them, but I just don’t have the time.
But the book’s strongest draw is its diversity. It’s a diverse set of authors with a diverse set of characters, yeah, but each story draws on a different magical tradition from across different cultures the world over. In the United States, people tend to think of the Salem Witch Trials or popular but very white examples from popular media. Think Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter books. Toil & Trouble disrupts that narrative and gives the readers brujas, girls connected to Baba Yaga, a Comanche girl who can feel water like it’s part of her. Witches and magic aren’t just for white girls and it also digs into the role of sexism in why women face specific persecution as witches.
Even one of the weaker stories, “Death in the Sawtooths” by Lindsay Smith, isn’t bad so much as it is not suited for being a short story. The worldbuilding that goes into this mystery and the idea’s potential is large enough for a novel, but trying to compress all of that into a few dozen pages makes the magical abilities of the characters and the events of the story confusing. If Smith ever wants to expand this story into a full book like Ibi Zoboi is doing with her own story from the Black Enough anthology, I’m game for it.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
Just two of the stories, “Daughters of Baba Yaga” by Brenna Yovanoff and “The Love Spell” by Anna-Marie McLemore, failed to leave an impression on me, so I consider them the weakest by default even if they’re not necessarily bad. I genuinely have NO memory of what was in either story.
Though I read the book in February and March 2020, it’ll be a fun book to break out again when Halloween comes around and the tide of witch stories comes back in. One of the most varied anthologies out there in terms of who took part, what stories they’re telling, and what their inspirations draw from.