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Witchy romcoms are flying onto bookshelves: Here’s what they reveal about women and power

Witchy romance novel book covers. (Courtesy)
Witchy romance novel book covers. (Courtesy)

Are you feeling bewitched, bothered and a little bad this Halloween?

Well there’s a new book genre becoming more popular that may be the perfect fit for you: witchy romcoms.

Witches have always been a staple of the fantasy genre, but in the last two years they’ve spelled over into romance novels — making contemporary romance just a little bit more magical.

While many of us spent the dark early days of the pandemic baking bread and picking up hobbies we’d quickly abandon, author Lana Harper was brewing up something else: a pitch for a new novel that would combine witches with the winning formula of a romantic comedy.

“I wanted it to be this very escapist book because I was writing the proposal for it mid-pandemic,” Harper says. “Everything was very dark and depressing and I just wanted it to kind of feel like living in a Yankee candle, but like a Halloween scented one.”

Harper’s novel follows Emmy, a witch who returns to her magical hometown and teams up with two other witches to get revenge on a man who broke their hearts only to end up entranced by one of them.

In 2021, “Payback’s A Witch” became one of dozens of witchy romcoms that flew onto shelves over the past two years.

These kinds of stories cast a spell on editors like Cindy Hwang, vice president and editorial director at Berkley, Penguin Random House’s romance imprint.

“The first time I got a witchy romcom submission, I was blown away because it was so much fun,” Hwang says. “We don’t want romcoms to feel so similar to readers that they felt like they’ve already read the book in. This seemed like a great way of keeping the feel of it really fresh.”

But for Harper, featuring witches in a romcom was more than just a fun gimmick. It was integral to the queer love story she wanted to tell.

“The same things that make witches threatening in history is probably the same thing that makes Sapphic romance threatening to the patriarchy, where it’s these unfettered women who don’t need men for anything anymore at this point. Because they’ve got their magic, they’ve got each other, they’re dangerous, they can’t be controlled,” Harper says. “So I think it’s just like the perfect mix of giving women freedom of expression in every sense.”

It’s this connection between women and power that’s at the heart of the witchy romcom boom.

India Holton is the author of “The League of Gentlewomen Witches,” the second book in a series about Victorian women who fly houses, cause chaos and fall in love.

“It seems to me that witches are about using magic to control their lives,” Holton says. “And I really wanted to explore that whole idea about how women get power for themselves in societies where they really just don’t have that.”

“The Ex Hex” cover. (Courtesy)

Erin Sterling, whose real name is Rachel Hawkins, is the author of “The Ex Hex.” She thinks the rise in popularity of this subgenre speaks to how women felt after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.

“I felt like post-2016, basically the witchcraft section of like my local chain bookstore suddenly exploded,” Sterling says. “I wondered how much of it was a reaction to sort of women especially feeling powerless all of a sudden.”

For Sangu Mandanna, author of “The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches,” writing a witchy romcom as a woman of color had a special resonance.

“For so long a witch has been … a stand-in for a woman who has been on the margins, someone who has been misunderstood and well, in some cases, literally killed for it,” Mandanna says. “I’m a woman of color. I’m an immigrant. I am neurodivergent. There are lots of ways in which I’ve never quite felt like I fit in to the mainstream.”

Aside from the thematic importance of witches, Mandanna points out that including magic in a love story can also be a metaphor for vulnerability.

In her novel, the main character Mika — who has spent her entire life hiding her magic — meets someone who knows her secret, allowing her to finally fall in love.

“For the first time, Mika is able to be completely herself with someone. And that is a huge part and a huge part of the foundation of her relationship,” Mandanna says. “The magic is what holds her back from being that intimate and honest with other people. But that is a stand in for a lot of things that stop us from being open and honest with everybody.”

Whether it’s the appeal of seeing women in power or the emotional connection between characters, more authors are jumping into this subgenre. But is it reaching saturation?

Editor Hwang says not quite.

“I do feel that we can approach that point. I don’t think we have yet,” Hwang says. “I mean, one of the things that is present more in these witchy romcoms there’s just in general a bit more acceptance of diversity … race as well as sexual identity and I really hope that we’ll continue to push boundaries in romance and with the witch rom coms specifically”

Berkley, the romance imprint at Penguin Random House, is set to release at least four more witchy rom coms in the coming months.

Recommended reads

Bonus recommendations from producer (and resident romance reader) Kalyani Saxena

  • “The Kiss Curse” by Erin Sterling for a rivals to lovers romance with lots of banter and hijinks
  • “The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels” by India Holton for some of the funniest and wittiest prose in a romantic comedy. (Yes, this book technically features pirates and not witches but they’re more connected than you realize)

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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