Should You Read Sanctuary by V. V. James?

The cover of Sanctuary by V. V. James: a weather vane atop a building with a moon encircled by the silhouettes of birds in the background

“Our moms were drinking champagne when Daniel died. Sipping on bubbles as Beatriz screamed outside the burning party house and I was loaded into an ambulance.”

– Opening of Sanctuary

Sanctuary is a contemporary fantasy/mystery novel that follows the story of what happens in a small New England town following a high school party gone disastrously wrong. Popular quarterback Daniel Whitman is dead, the house where the party was held is burned to a crisp, and suspicion has been cast on his ex-girlfriend, who just so happens to be the daughter of the town witch. As the mothers of all the teenagers who were involved struggle to cope with the tragedy and the detective sent in to investigate the case tries to uncover the truth, accusations fly, friendships are torn apart, and terrible secrets are forced into the light. Was Daniel’s death an accident? Or is there something far more sinister waiting to be uprooted?

This book definitely has a mystery that keeps you guessing right up to the final chapter. It also has a grim atmosphere, a stomach-clenching level of tension, and an unapologetic inspection of the darker side of human nature. I was particularly interested in the depiction of the modern witches and the various levels and types of prejudice they grapple with. I thought the book was at its best when it was really delving into these issues, and I found that it did so in a way that spurs some deep thoughts about the prejudices that exist in our society. I also liked the fact that the book depicted characters wrestling with the effects of several social issues at once, showing that the town in this book, like our modern society, truly has a tangled mess of misconceptions and injustices lying just beneath the surface. Far from oversimplifying or attempting to present a possible solution, this book tries to shine a light on just how complex and deeply entrenched these problems are, and it seemed, to me, to be leaving the question up to the reader: how do you think it is possible to move forward from here? I, for one, could not come up with a simple answer.

I will say that the book definitely encouraged me to have a wider scope of thinking, which mirrored the wide scope of the narrative itself. Rather than sticking to one point of view, the book tells itself from several. I felt a little distant from the characters and their emotions, but by the end of the book I found myself thinking that might be a good thing. The events themselves become horrifying enough on their own, in a way that I would compare to reading a particularly disturbing news story. This book is not so much about the individual characters as it is the town itself and, to a lesser extent, the country in which the town exists.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a particular interest in the issues it delves into, as well as anyone who likes a good mystery that doesn’t shy away from darker subject matter. I imagine that if you’re the parent of a teenager, you might also find it very frightening. The world we live in can certainly be a very frightening place, and this book manages to hold up a mirror to it.

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