Book review: Sanctuary by V.V. James
There's a murder-mystery or at least a suspicious death to be investigated in Sanctuary, but Sanctuary - the town - is no ordinary town and the methods of investigation are somewhat unconventional. That's because Harper Fenn is being accused of using witchcraft to murder popular student Daniel Whitman at a teen party.
Witchcraft, it has to be said, is accepted as a normal part of life in the United States of V.V. James's Sanctuary, or if not exactly normal it's an accepted talent that selected individuals are allowed to practice under strict guidelines to help people out with everyday problems. One of those strict guidelines however is evidently that you don't go around throwing curses on people or killing them (or reviving them from the dead for that matter) and in Sanctuary's state of Connecticut there's an ancient law that is still on the statute books that calls for the death penalty in cases of murder by 'unnatural practices'.
While Sarah is a well-respected witch within the very liberal-minded community of Sanctuary, the gift isn't always passed down, her daughter Harper has never shown any abilities with spells and has failed the initiation test. Maggie Knight, a state detective who has been assigned to Sanctuary before, is called in to help the local police with their investigation, but soon finds herself out of her depth as the town and local law-enforcement all get behind the dead boy and his mother and start to become wary of the abilities of Sarah and Harper and how much influence Sarah's gift gives her over the town.
Sanctuary works better as a female drama than as a thriller or even supernatural thriller. The thriller element certainly has a great twist with witchcraft being brought into it, but the procedural element is weak and incompetently handled. A boy is dead at a party and instead of interviewing any of the witnesses Detective Knight just has a little chat with one or two of them without really finding out anything important, and she lets things get out of control very quickly when she is unable to keep a lid on the press who are much more effective in getting information. Since there are plenty of real-life parallels to look at, you can imagine that stoking fear and hatred of witches escalates very quickly into something much more serious.
You would think then that something like this might have happened before and that there might be tighter controls and procedures for dealing with suspected criminality due to witchcraft, but although V.V. James makes some efforts to create a society where there are laws to ensure equality and treatment of witch minorities, there's still a lot of areas that look like they haven't been defined or considered, and it's a mystery why it's taken until now to recognise that there could be social integration problems. Then again, perhaps that is also true of real-life.
The witch element is of course used as a metaphor for female empowerment. The novel switches between three viewpoints - Sarah, Abigail (the mother of Dan) and detective Maggie - and it does well to create three very different female perspectives of repression and suspicion, and it makes a change that the paranoia isn't directed solely against men in general here. The back and forth does get a little repetitive, but the build-up of tensions is well-handled and it becomes brilliantly twisty, with more than enough intrigue and magic to make Sanctuary quite the compelling read.