Coming of Age in a World of Witchcraft: Threadneedle by Cari Thomas

Forbidden witchcraft, a horrifying family mystery, and a slow-burn love triangle: Cari Thomas’ Threadneedle has all the ingredients of an addictive young adult fantasy.

This debut novel opens with a brief dark scene in which seven witches are magically murdered by an unseen force. The stakes instantly elevated, the novel moves to a quieter vignette of violence, in which a girl undergoes a brutal spell to deprive her of her ability to feel joy. This girl, we learn, is our heroine Anna. Her magical tormentor is her aunt and caretaker, a dour woman insistent on teaching her charge a central tenet: magic is the first sin.

Aunt is a Binder, part of a cult-like group of other witches who believe it is their duty to suppress magic. Though as a Senior Binder, Aunt may wield her powers, Anna’s fate is to have her magic Bound sometime in her sixteenth year. Her whole life with Aunt has been leading up to this ritual, in which she must be strong enough to endure some kind of mysterious sacrifice. It is in service of her Binding that Aunt has systematically forced Anna to tie away her “disruptive” emotions in a Knotted Cord. During the summer break in which we meet her, Anna’s life consists of chores, embroidery, and remorseless drilling in the spells, rules, and beliefs of the Binders. Though Anna’s magic seems so weak as to be nonexistent, Aunt harangues her about the dangers of such abilities, threatening her with “The Hunters.” The only thing Aunt vilifies more than magic is love. Love, Aunt constantly reminds her niece, is the reason Anna is an orphan; the reason Anna’s father murdered her mother and then killed himself, sixteen years ago.

Amidst this miserable existence, the only thing Anna looks forward to is birthday visits from her dead mother’s friend Selene, a glamorous globe-trotting witch who brings fantastical gifts. On her sixteenth birthday, Selene appears for the first time in years — with her rebellious daughter Effie and a mysterious young man in tow. It turns out that Effie and her apparent boyfriend Attis are enrolled in Anna’s school for the fall. Our heroine both thrills at this news and dreads the way these two magic-wielding peers will draw attention to her and her carefully established shell of “the Nobody.”

Naturally, magnetic Effie and heartthrob Attis do draw Anna into their popular circle, along with two other school outcasts who are revealed to be witches as well. Effie establishes a secret coven, and Anna learns there is so much more to magic than she ever knew. In a well-worn and canny move, Thomas has naive Anna learn the rules of this world, allowing the reader to follow along.

If it seems I’m dwelling on the set-up of Threadneedle, that’s a reflection of the book itself. Only after 200 pages does Anna learn her magic has been artificially suffocated and begin to remedy her lack of power. Over halfway through the 555-page novel, we finally see Anna doing magic by herself. Thomas’ book evinces a familiar debut pattern: a slow beginning that painstakingly establishes the world, followed by a second half of action-packed sequences and revelation after revelation, culminating in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ending.

This uneven pacing is unfortunate, mostly because it delays the best parts of Threadneedle. In the latter half of her novel, Thomas offers us surprising twists and an elegant magic system. It is a breath of fresh air when Anna learns that the knot magic of the Binders is only one magical “language” and that there are infinitely more, all descended from an original seven: planetary, elemental, botanical, verbal, magic, symbolic, emotional. The reader is liberated alongside Anna when the book veers away from the stultifying environments of Aunt’s house and high school into the secret supernatural side of London. The plot begins to hum when a spell cast by the coven spirals into a dark and inescapable force. And, when Anna truly begins investigating the mystery of her parents’ death and the possibility that her own magic is cursed, she becomes someone I could actually root for.

The fact that Anna is difficult to invest in initially is both a casualty of the overwritten beginning and the risky choice of having a main character be both flattened by abuse and stripped of feeling. It’s easy to want this teenage girl to be freed from her emotionally and physically abusive aunt, but that’s due to the situation rather than any characteristics displayed by the passive cypher of Anna. Though I respect Thomas’ attempt at an alternative to the plucky young heroine, I was much more interested in the supporting characters like wild Effie and effervescent botanical witch Rowan.

That said, once the book is off and running in its final third, Anna comes into herself and Thomas’ clever plotting becomes addictive. Threadneedle is the first in the projected Language of Magic series, and it’s clear that Thomas is only getting started in this world. Though the novel doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, a second installment is set up by the abrupt ending.

Though I won’t rush to read that next book, I admit that a pre-teen version of myself would have. Back in the 90s, books like Threadneedle were exactly the kind of stories I searched for: a coming-of-age tale set in the hidden magical side of a contemporary “real” world. Young me would’ve given Thomas’ novel extra points for its Celtic-inflected magic and lengthy page count, and devoured it in the span of a weekend. It’s a now-classic combination, after all: a story anchored in the twin concerns of understanding one’s own magic and surviving the painful process of growing up.

Threadneedle is published by Harper Voyager.

Maura Krause is a writer and Barrymore-nominated theatrical director, currently pursuing their MFA in Writing at California College for the Arts.


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