Book Review

Threadneedle by Cari Thomas

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TW: emotional and physical abuse, self-harm, gaslighting, toxic friendships, bullying, fat shaming, rape, murder, suicide, peer pressure

Threadneedle was not at all the book I expected, but I found myself engrossed in the story even though I was upset by the content. In this YA novel, Anna, who has been taught to suppress her magic by her abusive aunt, falls in with a group of teens who are all too eager to explore their magical skills. As they hex bullies and dabble in romance, Anna must determine whether her aunt is to be trusted and whether her new friends are true friends or toxic tempters. All of this happens in an atmosphere that combines abuse at home and the politics of high school with near constant enchantment. It ends with the immediate plot points resolved but with a lot of threads left hanging until the sequel.

Anna lives in modern day London with her emotionally and physically abusive aunt. Her aunt constantly tells her that magic and love killed Anna’s parents, and that magic and any strong emotion, especially love, needs to be controlled. The aunt’s plan is that Anna is to become a Binder: a witch whose magic is completely constrained with threads and knots until she becomes an elder and is freed to use her magic to bind more young witches.

Anna is amazed when her aunt allows her to attend school with her free-spirited relative, Effie, and Effie’s mysterious and attractive friend Attis. To Anna’s surprise, Effie practices magic whenever and however she wants. Effie forms a coven with Anna, Attis, and two other school outcasts, Rowan and Manda. Together they learn about the magical world that exists just out of sight in London. Whether their friendship is liberating or toxic is a central question to the story. Anyone who knows anything about magic or fiction in general will start screaming “TOXIC” the first time Effie hexes a person, but the relationships prove to be more complicated than simply good or bad.

This book has a lot of tonal shifts. Yes, there is a lot of fun magic, but honestly most of the book involves abuse, bullying, controlling relationships, magic used to cause emotional and physical pain in others, and toxic friendships. There are references to murder, suicide, and rape. It’s a pretty ugly story with only one consistently sympathetic character — Anna. The conclusion involves stunning amounts of sudden, explicit violence, and although immediate plot points are resolved, the main characters are left reeling with unresolved trauma. For every scene of beauty and enchantment, there are multiple scenes that are physically and emotionally ugly.

I’m drawn to stories in which magic is based in traditionally feminine skills, including sewing, but this is more about knots and cords – interesting, but not exactly claiming power from a feminine skill. I might have enjoyed the magical system in Threadneedle more if I’d had realistic expectations, but if anything the book villainizes “women’s work,” using tea, baking, housework, and embroidery as means of violence and competition. There is also a theme of women pitted against one another, especially as regards love and social status. Some of the characters do pull together at the book’s climax, but you have to sit through an awful lot of women being cruel to others before you get there.

The strengths of this book lie in plot and imagery. I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I can say that I got lost in it. It kept me turning the pages, making me ask the all-important question, “What happens next?” Also, it was immersive – the descriptions of the aunt’s perfect and sterile house, the magic library, the dreary school cafeteria, and everything else was all on point. When the coven danced in the streets and in the woods, it felt amazing. When they were upset, I felt awful.

The characters were teenagers, with all the mess that involves, but they were consistent, making choices that kept the plot moving and the tension high. Individuals acted in character, making choices that were sometimes smart and sometimes not, but always consistent with who they were. Although I wanted to yell at them a lot, I believed that they would make the mistakes that they made.

This is a book written with a lot of skill that was just much too dark for me. Some of the elements I found troubling can’t be fully judged because I don’t know how they will be resolved in sequels. I had a hopeful impression that the rest of the series will tend towards healthier friendships and women supporting other women, but I just don’t know. It’s a high angst book that is often painful to read. It’s not whimsical. It’s rarely fun. That doesn’t make it bad, but it wasn’t to my taste.

However, I was swept up in the worldbuilding and the plot, and I felt invested in what the characters were doing and where they were. It will work best for readers who are interested in teen politics and abuse survival. Just know that our characters end this book in a traumatized and unsettled state. I hope they fare better in future books!

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Threadneedle by Cari Thomas

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  1. DonnaMarie says:

    I’m tired of the woman vs woman thing. I get enough of that at work. I need supportive friends that bring out the best in each other. Plus,never developed a taste for macrame, sooo…

    Thanks for the thoughtful review.

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