Adrienne Tooley’s debut fantasy Sweet & Bitter Magic is a sapphic, quiet slowburn fairytale between two girls with complicated relationships to magic, themselves, and each other.
Tamsin had been the most powerful young witch in Within, the witches’ land—unlike her twin, Marlena, who only ever wanted to leave Within, to explore the world and its potential. But as different as they were, Tamsin would have done anything for her sister.
And when Marlena’s life is in danger, she does.
Young Tamsin’s choice goes horribly awry, with deadly consequences. The Coven’s punishment would have been death, but Tamsin’s mother is the High Councillor, and spares her life—at a great cost. Tamsin is cursed to never love. Exiled from her community, Tamsin’s spent the past several years serving townsfolk with her magic, in exchange for their love. Not love for her—love for each other, their children, their spouses. It’s a cruel system, but it’s the only way Tamsin can experience love now. She lives in guilt and grief, desperate for the scraps of hope that come from her brief, bartered moments of love.
Wren is not a witch, but a source of magic. Witches are vessels for magic, they channel it through the world itself, but Wren is magic. She can see it, ribboning through the sky, connecting the world, she can sense it, and though she can’t wield it herself, witches can harness Wren’s magic. Sources are meant to train with the Coven. But before Wren was born, her parents lost a child to dark magic, and now that her mother’s dead, Wren is the only caretaker for her aging father. So she keeps her power secret, even though she can’t hide from it, choosing to spend her life caring for him. Her hidden, untrained magic sets her apart from the rest of the townspeople, making her experience the world differently.
Now, dark magic spreads across the queendom, destroying life in its path—both through illness and blight, and by making people forget who they are. Tamsin and Wren strike a bargain to discover the root of the magic and put an end to its destruction, but their quest ends up both more perilous and more personal than either had bargained for.
They make for unlikely partners at first. Wren is earnest and excitable, unfamiliar with many of the world’s dangers and mysteries while also fervently eager to learn. Tamsin’s curse makes her cold, the world holding little promise through her eyes—but even before the curse, she was steadfastly ambitious and focused. She also knows that it had been her own love, the love she held for her sister, that resulted in Marlena’s demise and her own curse. Even if she could, she wouldn’t trust herself to love again. But on their journey, each will come to understand more of the other, and in this way, more of themselves.
This is a moving, twisty, big-hearted story that wrestles with grief and guilt, forgiveness and self-acceptance, and ultimately, what we owe to ourselves. It’s also a sweet sapphic romance full of longing glances, mutual pining, and of course, at some point there will be only one bed.
I can’t speak from the asexual/aromantic perspective, but there are a few moments that could potentially be construed as conflating someone not experiencing romantic love with being cursed, broken, or monstrous before we understand the specificity of Tamsin’s situation. Readers may want to be aware that they’ll confront that rhetoric and its implications going in, especially as the novel defaults to universal allosexuality as far as I could recognize. As the worldbuilding deepens, it’s very clear that’s not Tooley’s intention. Tamsin’s curse isn’t about preventing her from experiencing romantic love, Tooley establishes from the first scene that “love” refers to a broader range of emotion than solely “romantic,” and this is where the magic can get both nebulous and deeply cool.
It’s love in how we experience the world. It’s familial love, interpersonal love, it’s very crucially self-love, but it also impacts how Tamsin interacts with her surroundings on a very literal level—the colors she can perceive are muted, the smells are foul or dull. Cutting her off from love means that she can’t appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or the flavors in a well-spiced meal, or remember what it meant to love her sister.
To me, Tamsin’s inability to experience love in this general, encompassing sense actually makes her curse feel closer to depression. Especially as it’s borne out of grief and exile, guilt and loneliness. She’s morally gray from the outset, permanently stripping love from others to experience temporary flares of it herself, but it’s literally the only way she can feel anything real. She had only been trying to save her sister. It’s heartbreaking, and relatable, and I love it, just as I love how Wren’s stifled magic makes her feel at odds with the world.
I love how Sweet & Bitter Magic challenges notions of monstrosity and weaves its own shape of fairytale, one that’s queer in its very making. Girls—especially white femmes in Western fantasy—are socialized to love. In fairytales, they’re often expected to love unconditionally. What might one look like when that’s stripped away? Tooley leans into the complex dynamics of sisterhood, of guilt and regret, of what we owe to our families and to ourselves, in a way that the fairytale canon typically has not. Without giving too much away, this is a novel that lets girls be angry, and even unforgivably cruel, without ever losing sight of why, where they came from, or the systems that made them that way. WandaVision is fresh in my mind, and this is another story that explores how it actually doesn’t matter that you didn’t intend to hurt anyone, when you do—especially not to your victims. Tooley holds her characters accountable for their choices. They hold themselves and each other accountable. That complex gray morality makes them all the more compelling, and real. To see one another for the fullness of who they are—and choose to love, anyway. With all the effort and messiness that might entail.
I also love that this is a world entirely free of homophobia and biphobia, that Tamsin and Wren don’t have to wrestle with it and neither do we. I don’t count queer catharsis as a spoiler, so I can say that yes, there’s a fairytale ending here, but it feels earned—and beautifully, deliberately, it doesn’t feel final. Sweet & Bitter Magic brims with hope, while simultaneously ensuring the reader understands that romantic love isn’t the end of the story. It can be a beginning.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.