Sanctuary by Vic James

8/10 A pacey and enjoyable read that offers many enjoyable whodunnit thrills

When star quarterback Daniel Whitman plummets to his death at a house party, the small town of Sanctuary is rocked to its core. Though it might look like an accident, it’s not long before rumours start to surface of a spurned ex-girlfriend (Harper) and her witch mother (Sarah) having a grisly hand in the incident. 

Whether in film, TV or literature, small towns have rarely been kind to their inhabitants. V.V. James’ new novel, Sanctuary, manipulates our ready and waiting bias to weave a tale of paranoia, witchcraft and just possibly, murder.

The Dark Gifts author wastes no time diving into the drama, scripting chapters that read like episodes from a CW show; every one finishing with a cliff-hanger that leaves you no choice but to plunge into the next one, and then the next one, until somehow it’s gone midnight and you didn’t even notice. 

For the most part it’s a gripping ride, and one easy enough to enjoy, but as with any good thriller, there’s a lot to keep your eye on. Whether it’s the rapidly deteriorating mother of the victim, the suspiciously tame school principle – hell, even the local handyman – everyone has their secrets, and they’re all coming out. 

While many of James’ characters prove interesting (I’d read another novel about Detective Maggie Knight or Pierre Martineau whenever she’s ready), more than a few fall short of the complexities and intrigue you’d expect based on her previous work in the ‘Dark Gifts’ trilogy (the Jardines being a particular stand out). 

Sarah, witch of Sanctuary turned victim of mob mentality, feels surprisingly one-note despite her key role in the story. Her coven - Julia, Abigail and Bridget - are an interesting bunch, with Bridget proving especially sympathetic in her attempts to save the group from fracturing beyond repair. Abigail, mother of the deceased and the biggest plot motivator, regularly risks straying into caricature with her grief-stricken actions that often feel too far-fetched, while Julia… well, Julia is pretty forgettable.

All the characters suffer somewhat under the constrictions of first person prose, with many chapters reading like not much more than a list of questions. The first person perspective also limits how much we can explore the characters’ back-story, as there is too much focus on the whys and wherefores of solving the case that started the book. As a result, occasionally some of the characters seem to blur into each other with little distinction.

Where James really succeeds however is in selling her world, one where witches are a part of every town and society. They have rights and specific laws, as well as being relied upon as doctors, counsellors and everything in-between. James sews this idea seamlessly into her narrative, creating a very natural and believable universe that’s fun to think about even when you’re not reading it.

The author’s tale is also peppered with commentary on issues such as xenophobia, fear-culture and the fragile state of human society – topics we’ve probably all thought about at some point and which she shrewdly addresses here. It’s an interesting perspective – and a timely one. Sometimes, it can seem like we’re living on a knife edge, just waiting to fall to one side or the other, and it might only take the softest gust to push us off.

James’ new novel is a pacey and enjoyable read that while not quite reaching the heights of her previous work, offers many enjoyable whodunnit thrills.

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