Book Review: This Too Shall Burn by Cat Rector
Strap in for what may be the longest book review I will ever write, but I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book, so here we go. I’ll keep things mostly spoiler free, but in case you still don’t want to sit through the whole thing, here’s the TLDR version: I loved this, I connected with this deeply, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Ready for the long version? Here we go.
This Too Shall Burn takes place in and the small fantasy village of Arrothburg and the surrounding forest. The people of Arrothburg are extremely religious, their beliefs resembling Puritan Christianity in the years of the Salem witch trials (including the witch-burning part). Actual-witch Arden lives in the forest near the village, mostly keeping to herself and just trying to be left alone, but stepping in to assist the villagers when needed. When injured teenager Verity stumbles onto her property, Arden tries to help and ends up burned through contact with Verity’s skin, indicating that Verity herself may have some latent magic of her own. From there, the two women’s journeys are linked as they try to understand what’s happening and learn more about the dark truth of Arrothburg’s witch burnings.
“It seems to me you’re already burning, a little at a time.”
I loved how different Verity and Arden were from each other. On the surface, Arden is delightfully bitter and irreverent with a sharp remark always at the ready. (See: “I do love seeing you simpletons pee your pantaloons with fear.”) Beneath that tough exterior is a somewhat lonely woman with a genuinely good heart who wants to protect life, ease suffering, and build connections with others where she can. Verity, with all her piety and deeply-rooted but misinformed beliefs, very much annoys Arden when they first meet. But Verity has her own secrets hiding just below the surface, including the fact that she isn’t entirely content with her role in life and the rigid expectations imposed by religion. As she comes to rely on Arden and the two begin to understand each other better, a friendlier connection forms, but it’s definitely not an easy path. The contrast between them creates some interesting tension that really drives home the themes of the book.
Nuance was often too much to ask.
Speaking of themes, this book definitely tackles a lot in a very short amount of pages. There are explorations of women’s health issues, gender roles, religion, familial duty, control and manipulation, respect for the earth and its resources, and more. It’s a big ask to expect a book to fully explore the nuances of even one of these subjects in a single story, and while endless pages could be filled telling stories with these themes, this one captures them well in a brief but powerfully effective way. The author skillfully weaves together these threads in a way that feels natural, creating a complex tapestry that has concrete impacts on the world, the characters, and their choices. I found myself connecting and relating to so much in this story, but I just want to talk about one of those things that was the most important and meaningful to me at this stage of my life. (Minor spoiler’s below for Verity’s character arc)
"Do you feel more lost than before, or less?" "Both. Most definitely both."
But Verity couldn’t help it. Tears streamed down her face. She’d lost her whole world so quickly, like the shattering of glass in slow motion. The door to her own truths creaked open, and a few tumbled to the front of her mind…. She slammed the door shut. Already those truths were too much to contend with. The things she’d been told, been raised to believe, they were all under question. If God was there, watching and listening, which of His words were real? Which had been the pastor’s poison? She might never truly know.
As someone who was born and raised in a high-demand religion which I believed in wholeheartedly for the vast majority of my life, I deeply connected to Verity as a character and could relate to much of her journey. The system she belongs to isn’t serving her, but it’s all she knows---the only way she’s been taught to find true happiness and meaning in her life. She knows she’s doing the right thing and following the path she’s supposed to by stepping into a caretaking role for her family, but that role doesn’t fit her, and there are parts she truly hates and feels are unfair. I saw her wrestle with the same sort of cognitive dissonance that I grappled with for so much of my time as a religious person. When she begins to question things more seriously, the heartbreak she experiences was so true to what I and others in this ex-religious space have gone through. I appreciated the nuance we got to see in that journey, how Verity falters between her faith and belief and her doubts, questions, and anger. As she puts it, "I don't know what's real, what was ever real." Oof. You and me both, girl. The fact that she’s able to start disentangling it all and create a better life for herself and the other villages by the end was a powerful narrative for me and one that is very much needed in the world, whether you’re undergoing a faith crisis or just some other type of personal transformation. The author summarizes it well with this line: Self-work was hard. It tore the mind apart and put it back anew.
One life after another that hadn’t needed to be sacrificed, but had been all the same. And for what? For a stupid god and a rigid way of life and ideals no one could live up to. For greed and dishonesty and apathy.
I know some would say that the religion in this book is an extreme example of harmful beliefs and practices that are no longer an issue, and while that may be true on the surface, I still think there’s an argument to be made about how many of those beliefs have carried over into certain modern, real-life religions. The specifics may not be the same, but the general principles are uncannily similar, at least comparing to my own experience. Women have their place and their role, and men have theirs (notably one that gives them power over women). To step outside of that role, to question the church or its leaders, to begin seeking outside information and thinking more critically about the world---all of these things are wrong, forbidden, and a sure sign that one is being led astray (by the devil, witchcraft, the evils of the world, or whoever/whatever the big bad of the time is). And there are certainly some other haunting real-world parallels when we look at the state of healthcare for anyone with a vagina/uterus.
I’ve already rambled on too long but to close I’ll just say again that this was an excellent book, and an important one. I hope it resonnates with other readers as much as it did with me. If you have even the vaguest interest in picking this up, do it. It’s worth your time.
(Also insert obligatory appreciation for the cover because DAMN what a beauty she is.)