Another day, another subpar YA novel. After the disaster that was Three Dark Crowns, I told myself, “Luce, don’t get sucked in by another excellent premise, it will only disappoint you,” and I should have listened to myself. I picked up a new book called The Hawkweed Prophecy based on its premise: two girls, one magical and one not, were switched at birth and have to find their way in the world. The author, Irena Brignull, seemed particularly accomplished as well: as a screenwriter, she worked on The Boxtrolls and the movie adaptation of The Little Prince, and she’s worked on many other projects as a script editor for the BBC. Yet somehow, there turned out to be very little to recommend about her first novel.
Minor spoilers and trigger warning for some discussion of abortion after the jump.
The Hawkweed Prophecy is like our world, but with witches. These witches keep to themselves, considering all non-magical humans to be “chaffs,” a term which sounds uncomfortably like the British English “chav,” a derogatory term that Britain’s middle class uses to refer to Britain’s working class. The eponymous prophecy was made centuries ago—ancient witches stated that three hundred and three years later, one of the daughters of the Hawkweed clan would deliver a daughter who would become queen of the witches. Fast forward three hundred and three years, and there are two Hawkweed sisters, Raven and Charlock. While Charlock doesn’t much care about the prophecy, Raven knows that one of their daughters will be queen, and her own daughter Sorrel is not particularly strong. So she does what she thinks needs to be done to secure Sorrel’s future: at the moment Charlock’s daughter is born, Raven uses a spell to switch Charlock’s baby with that of Melanie Hooper, a chaff woman. Charlock’s biological daughter grows up as Poppy Hooper in our normal world, whereas Melanie’s daughter grows up as Ember Hawkweed in the witches’ hidden camp.
Just from this premise, you’d absolutely think there’d be some epic Switched at Birth shenanigans at play in this book. There’s great potential for expounding on the themes of family and found family, sisterhood, and identity—all the things I love. And yet The Hawkweed Prophecy does very little of any of these things. Poppy and Ember know from the start that they don’t belong in their worlds—Poppy attracts cats and spiders wherever she goes, and Ember, obviously, hasn’t a scrap of magical ability. There are almost no loving families—though Charlock is always kind to Ember, no one else, not even her presumed cousin Sorrel, cares about her. Poppy’s presumed mother somehow knows from the start that Poppy is not her biological daughter and is eventually institutionalized for insisting on this. Poppy’s presumed father takes care of her, but the two of them have almost no emotional connection.
Even worse, Brignull adds an unnecessarily sexist implication to her world of witches and chaffs—for some reason, the witches don’t care about personal hygiene or adhering to current standards of femininity, and one of the reasons Ember knows she doesn’t belong is that she likes to shave her legs and wear perfume. So… all the witches are the epitome of “not like other girls.” In fact, that’s how Poppy acts around her non-magical classmates as well; the chaff characters are particularly one-note “mean girl” bullies and there’s no reason for Poppy to ever try to bond with them. Poppy knows she’s not a chaff because she’s literally too cool for them; Ember knows she’s not a witch because she’s too soft and likes to be clean.
Though Poppy and Ember eventually meet and become friends, the growing depictions of their friendship are cut short by the introduction of Leo, a homeless boy in Poppy’s town. The only good thing about Leo is that he could possibly count as a person of color and thus would be the only character of color of note in this story. Other than that, there’s very little to Leo’s character, yet somehow, Poppy, Ember, and even Sorrel fall in love (or in Sorrel’s case, lust) with him. Just as Poppy and Ember are starting to tell each other their secrets and realizations about their families, each girl’s love for Leo stops them from being perfectly honest until close to the end of the book. Leo is little more than a plot device for the girls’ emotional growth.
That’s not to say that Leo couldn’t have been interesting if more thought had been given to him. We learn early on that witches only have girls, because they can sense the gender of the baby and they use a potion to abort any and all potentially male babies. Putting aside the “there are only two genders” part of this plot for a second, the abortion of an entire gender is a horrifying concept to consider, and we learn later on that Leo is the son of a witch who couldn’t bear to abort him and instead left him in the care of a chaff woman. Learning more about Leo could have been a fascinating expansion of this world’s worldbuilding: can men do magic as well as women? Poppy and Ember learned about their heritage and were allowed to make their peace with it; why did Leo never get the same privilege? Could Leo have done magic, and if so, are there are other male witches out there that could have dismantled the witches’ misandristic culture? Instead, the book’s cavalier description of abortion only serves to further the inaccurate idea that women get abortions willy-nilly for flippant and illogical reasons.
Throughout the story, many other worldbuilding issues are brought up one by one to subvert the plot. When Poppy tells Charlock she loves Leo, Charlock tells her that as a future queen, if Poppy loves anyone, that guy will die, despite this never having been brought up before. Poppy then finds out that Leo is the son of a witch, which means he won’t die, implying that perhaps Leo has some latent magical ability, but this is of course not expanded upon. The Eastern clan of witches, only referred to throughout the book as a vague enemy, suddenly show up near the end of the book for Poppy, Ember, and co to attack.
While the premise of this book is still intriguing, it could have been a lot better if the characters had been allowed to have relationships with their adoptive families, rather than just gravitating naturally back to their “real” worlds. Leo could have been much more involved in the plot; or alternatively, the misandry could have been removed from the story and there could have been male and female witches, or at least a better explanation for why all the witches are female. Perhaps then the burgeoning romance of the story could have been between Poppy and Ember, a move which I personally think would have felt much more realistic. Nevertheless, I definitely would not recommend this book. The author has written some good screenplays in the past, and I hope her talent will be better reflected in future novels. Until then, I’m going to the library to read literally anything else.