Consensual Hex by Amanda Harlowe

Lee is reluctant to head off to college at Smith and on arriving immediately feels like an outsider as though everyone hates her. After being date raped by another student called Tripp, she finds no one believes her and she can get no help. That is until she is accepted into a class on Gender, Power and Witchcraft. It turns out that the class is a practical course, and her course mates are her coven. And the plot thickens when she finds out that Tripp has been using witchcraft to rape women on campus. Now this coven wants revenge.

I love witchy themed books, from dramas and comedy to horror stories and history. I’m not sure why. I just like them. So I saw the cover of this one and requested it, without really knowing anything about it, other than the witchcraft theme. (I like only knowing a little bit about a book before I read it)

Initially, I found the writing style really different. It’s loud, brash, confrontational and full of metaphors for things. It’s not the best use of metaphor, often going for witty or clever than fully suiting the situation. But I didn’t mind that. It felt like something a college student would do in their writing, and so it felt perhaps intentional. Sometimes it was funny or felt fun in a snarky way.

The main character, Lee, hates everyone and she hates herself the most. She describes everyone very harshly, except for guys her age, whose approval she seems to desperately want. Cute guys, basically, like Tripp. However, this demographic are also all suspect since they’re generally abusing their power in some way, in this narrative.

As you can tell, Lee’s world is a dark place. The pages of this book are full of trauma, angst, cynicism and anti-anxiety medication. Someone vomits every few pages or talks graphically about their period, which I think is meant to make us clutch our pearls and feel edgy. There’s also date rape, and violent revenge. A trip to the sex shop. A fight where someone gets beaten up with a sex toy. There’s plenty of talk about whether feminists hate trans people, and if magic is sexist, LBGTQ issues, hot button things like that, too. There’s a lot going on dramatically and ideas are thrown around. It’s a little low on coherence sometimes because the author seems to sometimes give us a conclusion that doesn’t stem from an event and sometimes things seem sort of rammed in there. On the way to get the bad guy does not seem like the time for an abstract discussion, for example.

I know that sounds like strong criticism, yet somehow, I didn’t hate this book. It was kind of interesting sometimes. It’s full of drama and fury, and it creates and atmosphere. However, while there were things I liked about it, I felt confused. It reads a little like fan fiction in places, and I wasn’t sure if it was straight fiction or satire of some kind. Was I missing something? I’m not sure.

Well, I think that brings me to a point that you can’t seem to get away from with this book: The Controversy. Amanda Harlowe doesn’t really come up if you search for her, which leaves her as a bit of a mystery. For a person with a published book, she has no social media presence and I couldn’t find other things she’s written, other than one short story. But it seems that she has based the book and it’s characters on real people, and they’re not happy about it. (Understandably) These people claim to have taken legal action after ARC’s of the book were sent out prior to publication and they would like the book to be boycotted because she uses them, actual conversations and things said in private, barely concealing their identities. They feel that their privacy has been violated. (They’re quite vocal online)

This made me wonder a few things. Firstly, who is this author and what is her creative writing background? Then I wondered, is this a stunt? Is the controversy created or intended to get people reading this book? As a commentary on cancel culture? Perhaps Harlowe did a little revenge of her own on her old friends knowing that they would get mad and sell books for her? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Perhaps most importantly, I wondered about the legal implications of “writing about what you know.” Back in the day, a little book called Peyton Place was a bestseller because it was a salacious, gossipy story about the real lives behind the curtains of American suburbia. It has everything from affairs and dark family secrets to incest and abortion. However, the author soon had bricks through her window as people from her town recognized their own stories made into thinly veiled fiction on her page. The book was huge. It was frowned on as cheap and trashy, but it sold and sold, and had a movie and tv series based on it. Dickens based characters on people he met, and quite often too. And Hemingway was clearly inspired by his travel and life experiences. And of course, books like Hollywood Wives are hugely popular because they are thinly veiled mostly true stories about real actors and real Hollywood. Where is the line between writing about things you’ve experienced, using your life and others lives as inspiration, and getting sued? Where is the ethical line as well? It’s quite a question, and I’m not defending the author or the people making the complaint. But it seems to be the elephant in the room when you talk about this book. And people do have legal rights if they’re defamed or their privacy is threatened. (And I mean, I’d be offended and hurt if a friend used things I’d said to them in private, let alone published them). But these people aren’t suing, they’re going online.

It’s an interesting thing to think about, especially in this time of cancel culture, which has damaged the already fragile publishing industry in the process of attacking books and authors. I was a bit scared writing this review in case someone came after me for reviewing it. That does happen.

So, there’s a lot coming at you when you read this book, on and off the page. It’s an odd book, and one that, with its style and subject matter, will not be for everyone. It could be quite unsettling for some readers and some of you may not want to read something that feels unethical (I’ve seen a lot of commenters on Goodreads express this). Taken on its own, my opinion is that the book is not well written in a few places and lacks coherence at times, but I had some fun reading it, and liked how different it was to other things. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on the ethical aspects.

Read It If: an odd, snarky and dark read that sometimes feels like fan fiction. It might be more well known for its controversy than its contents at this point.

Thank you HBG Canada for the ARC of this book for review. As you can tell, all thoughts here are my own honest thoughts and opinions. Consensual Hex is out now.

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