In alternating points of view, Witches Steeped in Gold centers on two antagonistic young women, Alumbrar witch Jazmyne Cariot and Obeah witch Iraya “Ira” Adair. As the only daughter and heir to Aiyca’s matriarchal throne, Jazmyne has been preparing to become doyenne her entire life. Her mother, a cold woman so obsessed with political strategy that she has no room left for relationships, sees Jazmyne not as her child but as a tool to continue her power even after she’s gone. Locked away in a dungeon for the last decade, Ira is the last living heir of the former Obeah rulers of Aiyca, the ones deposed and murdered by Doyenne Cariot. Sent to train as a guard, Ira is constantly foiled in her attempts at resistance.
The nation of Aiyca may be at peace with its neighbors, but a revolution is building in backrooms and whispered conversations. The ruling Alumbrar seem mostly satisfied with the doyenne, but some are ready to remove her from her blood-covered throne and replace her with her daughter Jazmyne, a calmer and (seemingly) more compassionate leader. Ira, too, trails a revolution behind her, this one to dethrone the Alumbrar altogether and put the Obeah back in charge of Aiyca.
When Ira and Jazmyne realize they both want to overthrow the doyenne, they form a hasty alliance. Their goals for after the coup—Jazmyne wants to crown herself doyenne while Ira wants to reinstate the Obeah as the leaders of Aiyca—are set aside but not forgotten. And then there’s Kirdan, a young man whose is either torn over which woman he should give his loyalty to or who has plans of his own that neither girl are aware of. With their friends goading them on and the fate of Aiyca at stake, Jazmyne and Ira must outsmart not just each other but Doyenne Cariot as well.
In the beginning of the novel, Jazmyne and Ira fit clearly defined tropes. Jazmyne is the reluctant heir, a young woman trying to do what’s right without hurting anyone in the process. Ira is the firebrand, the Chosen One who is unready to follow her destiny because she has her own plans for her future. Once the girls meet, those tropes fall away. Both believe they are right and the other is wrong. But more than that, both believe they are the hero of the story and the other the villain. Ira and Jazmyne do terrible things to each other and other people ostensibly to secure Aiyca and save their people, but much of their actions boil down to revenge and power. The tenuous alliance they form is dependent only on overthrowing Doyenne Cariot; what comes after is fire and blood and deadly magic and a series of brutal betrayals.
The world Ciannon Smart created is as richly detailed as the characters who populate it. The pages are crammed with vivid descriptions of lush landscapes, energetic battles, and painful hits. Bloodthirsty monsters trawl the jungles waiting to capture an unsuspecting human. Along with an intricate and intimate magic system bound in blood and bone and ancestral powers, the worldbuilding comes alive. Dense political history fills in every nook and cranny.
Everything about Witches Steeped in Gold is, well, steeped in Jamaican culture and history. For example, Jazmyne is Alumbrar, a Spanish word with a variety of meanings including “to illuminate” and “to cast a spell.” This is also an indirect reference to Spain’s colonial rule, from Christopher Columbus landing there in 1494 through the takeover of the British in the 1650s. Ira is Obeah refers to spiritual practices originating from West Africans enslaved in the Caribbean; it draws on ancestral powers and is often used to seek justice for those who are harmed, which has led outsiders to frame it as dangerous. In other words, Smart took the trope of light versus dark magic and twisted it into something new.
I spent much of the book looking up terms as I went along. Many I couldn’t untangle, but I’m sure those that are familiar with Jamaican history and culture will see the layers that were hidden to me. Personally, I love when BIPOC authors write speculative fiction without explaining every detail about their cultural influences. They should not be expected to educate the reader on real-world issues. I did not read this novel to learn about Jamaica but because I wanted a Jamaican-influenced fantasy (that and it sounded so cool).
Fiery and fierce, Witches Steeped in Gold is a vicious series opener from a powerful debut novelist. Even at over 500 pages, the ending hit and I was begging for more. Ciannon Smart clearly understands young adult fantasy and does a brilliant job of playing with the best parts and daring the worst to be better. Even with lots of foreshadowing, the story twists and turns in unexpected ways. Readers looking for dense fantasy with plenty of politics, scheming, and morally gray characters could hardly do better than this.