Autistic Book Party, Episode 33: A Different Witch

Today’s Book: “A Different Witch” by Debora Geary

The Plot: An autistic witch named Beth travels to Witch Central in California in order to learn more powerful magic than what is practiced by her circle at home.

Autistic Character(s): Beth, as well as a small boy who shows up in one or two scenes.

This was a bit of a frustrating book for me. There was a lot I wanted to like. Witches! Witches with Asperger syndrome! NT witches learning how to accept and accommodate autistic witches!

Years ago, members of the Witch Central circle abruptly showed up in Beth’s circle, told them they were doing everything wrong, and left. Since then, Beth has always intended to find Witch Central and learn more. The main arc of the book revolves around her learning the ropes from Witch Central’s witches, and the other characters learning to adjust what they’re doing to make it easier for Beth.

This is a perfectly good main arc for the book, and its basic information about autism is pretty accurate, though sometimes oversimplified. But I found it irritating to read more often than not, for two basic reasons.

First, the book is all about learning to make accommodations for an autistic person. In the absence of another major conflict, the plot is constructed around Witch Central’s witches trying really hard to teach Beth, succeeding a little, failing a little, going into a knot of angst about why they failed, learning a valuable lesson, and trying again. This might not be a bad thing, except that a lot of the try/fail/angst/learn cycles didn’t really make sense to me. Take this scene, for example, when a witch named Nell watches her three daughters unexpectedly accost Beth:

Beth’s brain was practically shaking. Nell felt her temper firing up. Easy welcome streamed from her girls-and Beth was reacting like she was under machine-gun fire. She touched Ginia’s shoulder, trying to get mama bear back on the leash. “Those are all good ideas. Why don’t you go grab some cookies?” She added a gentle mental shove behind the words, and this time her triplets caught the unsaid message. Three subdued girls made their way into the house. Nell tried to resist the urge to kick at the woman who had deflated their everyday joy. “They’re excited about the party. Sorry if they were a bit overwhelming.” Her next sentence steamed out of its own accord. “Most people who come here for training want to be included in our lives.”

It’s not clear to me why Nell is even angry here, since no one told Beth that she was supposed to be friends with the other witches’ families. It’s not clear to Nell either, and she spends a lot of time soul-searching to find out why she reacted that way. The trouble is that a lot of the scenes in the book fail to make sense in this way. Beth gets overloaded by something, and the other witches freak out, because OMG, what does it mean if their normal practices are overloading to someone? Have they failed at training Beth?? Is it impossible for Beth to be a witch here??? Then I get annoyed at the characters and want to tell them to take a chill pill because sometimes overload just happens and is not meant as a judgment on anyone.

A lot of the solutions to the problems also fail to make sense to me. As another example, Beth is reluctant to go to a big family get-together and decorate for Solstice, because it’s too many people. But the witches agree to keep all the people from getting too noisy (by whatever neurotypical definition of “too noisy” they are using), and then everything works out fine and Beth is touched by their efforts to adjust things for her. Based on my own experiences around people and noise, I would say that while this strategy might work, it comes off as far too easy on the page.

The stakes in all of these problem/angst/solution cycles are also vastly unclear. Why is magic so important to Beth that she’ll get on a plane and go far out of her comfort zone, into a nest of strangers, to learn about it? Why is Beth’s magical development so important that the other witches will go so far out of their way to teach her, apparently without pay? Why do all the witches need to be best friends with each other? Why are we having this conflict in the first place?

“A Different Witch” doesn’t have the battle-and-action-y stakes of many urban fantasies. That’s not a bad thing; it’s good to see urban fantasy once in a while that’s quieter and not focused on fighting some bad guy. But apart from a few of the spells, I don’t really have a clear picture of how magic is useful in the witches’ everyday lives. Most of the magic in the book involves trying to make pretty bubbles out of different elements, which is cool, but seems a little bit underwhelming when you consider the big emotions and personal sacrifices that go into it. If magic is spiritually significant to the characters, as it is for many IRL pagans, I don’t have a clear picture of how that works for them, either. It’s possible that the answers to these questions might be clearer if I’d read the previous books in the series. But in the absence of that, I spent a lot of the book confused why everyone is angsting so hard about whether or not an autistic witch can make pretty bubbles the right way.

The second problem with the book is that I don’t have a clear picture of who Beth is beyond being a fire witch with Asperger syndrome. Every single thing she does in the novel seems to revolve around her autistic traits. Even the positive, complimentary things people say about her (she’s a strong person) immediately go back to her autistic traits (it takes strength to live with an autistic brain every day, SIIIGH). We know that she is a health food nut, but only because a sugary diet is hard for her autistic brain to handle. We know that she is a lesbian and manages a store with her NT girlfriend, but even her interactions with her girlfriend seem to revolve around her autistic traits:

It was only two words—but so much more rode in her partner’s eyes. Frustration welled in Beth’s veins. “Come on, Liri. You know I can’t read what you’re thinking. You have to tell me.” It was one of the central tenets of their relationship, and something Beth had learned sprang from love anyhow. You gave what your lover needed.

It’s not that I want there to be scenes in which an autistic person’s autism isn’t there. It’s just that the book seems to spend so much time saying “X and Y are hard for Beth because autism” that the rest of Beth gets lost. Aside from wanting to make pretty magic bubbles, there’s not much sense of what is important to Beth or of what Beth’s desires are. Even her relationship is described as having happened because Liri was patient and helped convince Beth that it was a good idea, not because Beth did any normal human things like having a crush on someone. Perish the thought.

A lack of agency on Beth’s part makes the book’s first problem more problematic. The witches of Witch Central were the ones who decided Beth’s magic isn’t good enough. They decide what Beth needs to do to fit in with them, even when it’s something (like getting along with their children) which logically doesn’t have a lot to do with magic lessons. They find out that, for Beth to do these things, she needs accommodations, so they work on that. But once they have the right accommodations, there is no more problem. Beth does magic their way. Beth gets along with them and their kids, and everybody gets to pat themselves on the back for becoming so understanding of Beth. The book spends a lot of time on making accommodations so an autistic person can do what you want them to, and very little time asking what the autistic person wants.

This is a subtle problem, and the book isn’t all bad. Beth does get to call out the Witch Central witches on things they’ve done wrong, including the arrogance of waltzing in and telling her she was doing magic wrong in the first place. There are some heartwarming scenes, including one late in the book where an older witch visits Beth and Liri’s shop and is genuinely interested and respectful.

Overall I think this is a very well-intentioned book, by an author who wanted to educate readers about autism and inclusion. It gets a lot right, but it has subtle problems with agency and tone which continually frustrated me. Unless you have a great love for cozy urban fantasies, I think most autistic readers would be happier reading something else.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Debora Geary. I read her book by buying an electronic copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.