Hail to the Guardians of the Watchtowers of the North, by the powers of mother and earth. Hear us.
If you can remember this line from the 1996 film The Craft, then run, do not walk, to your local bookshop and grab a copy of Melissa Albert’s new novel, Our Crooked Hearts, a tale of mothers and daughters, sisters by both blood and spirit, and the magic that binds them all together. A propulsive, binge-worthy read drenched in tension that’ll keep you turning pages well into the night, it’s a story that more than proves Albert’s impressive range as an author.
Though her previous efforts have been more explicitly fantasy focused—Albert’s The Hazel Wood duology is a delicately layered dark fairytale in which characters from a storybook realm known as the Hinterland are not only alive but capable of crossing into our real world—Our Crooked Hearts is a more contemporary sort of tale, told across two interconnected timelines that are bound by both love and the supernatural. (As well as no small amount of female rage.)
Like so many female characters before them, the women of Our Crooked Hearts turn to magic to fill holes in their own lives—-to try to understand why a parent is distant, to try and find some kind of control over a seemingly powerless situation, to get back at the men who are so frequently allowed to do what they like to women, to claim some sort of agency over their own futures. They are angry: at things they can’t control, at feelings they don’t understand, and at lives that seem so much less than they ought to be.
The story begins when the car in which seventeen-year-old Ivy Chase is riding nearly hits a naked girl in the middle of a deserted road on the way home from a party. This bizarre event is the catalyzing moment for the rest of the novel, as strange things begin to occur around Ivy, including a decapitated rabbit suddenly showing up in her driveway and inexplicable holes appearing in her own memory. Her mother, Dana, becomes increasingly agitated until she disappears altogether, along with her cousin and BFF, whom Ivy refers to as Aunt Fee. Determined to find out what her mother’s been keeping from her, Ivy works to uncover her family’s secrets and unearth her own true identity.
Told across dual timelines set in “the suburbs, right now” and “the city, back then,” Albert slowly unravels Dana’s story as well as her daughter’s. As a teen in 1990s Chicago, Dana, and Fee meet Marion, a lonely rich girl who’s been dabbling in dark magic thanks to a mysterious grimoire she claims once belonged to a furious female occultist. The trio become fast friends and attempt to work increasingly complicated spells together, reveling in the rare feeling of power and control their supernatural abilities give their lives. But when a summoning goes horrible wrong, the course of their lives is changed forever—and Ivy’s as well.
Albert deftly balances the novel’s supernatural elements (blood sacrifice, dead animals, and ancient grimoires) with the real-world normality of typical teenage angst in suburban America (dating, getting grounded, trying to relate to your parents) and the end result is something that feels both fresh and thrilling. As two different generations of women deal with break-ups, complicated friendships, and curfews alongside dark magic, curses, and magical objects capable of stealing memories, the book drives the two timelines toward an inevitable collision course.
And although there is plenty of magic involved, the heart of the story is really the various relationships between the women at its center—the complex dynamics between the three teens who first begin to practice magic together, the lifelong loyalty of two best friends to keeping each other’s secrets, a mother’s desire to protect her daughter at all costs.
While watching Ivy unpack the hidden secrets of her own history is both propulsive and entertaining—even if you’ll likely guess some of the biggest reveals ahead of time—the best part of Albert’s novel is the The Craft-like segments in which Dana, Fee, and Marion discover (and test) the limits of their newfound abilities. From the sharp way that the book recreates the beats of 1990s life to its honest depiction of the weird blend of love, loyalty, jealousy, and competition that is so often a hallmark of relationships between teen girls.
A perfectly bewitching (and deeply creepy) bit of summer escapism, Our Crooked Hearts proves that Melissa Albert is an accomplished storyteller in multiple genres—and I look forward to seeing what she writes next.
Our Crooked Hearts
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.