The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel
by Alyssa Palombo
St. Martin’s Griffin
** Review disclaimer: my review is based on a library copy and is an honest reflection of my thoughts; I was in no way compensated by the author or publisher to write this review **
Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.
But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.
Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.
Review: I have wanted to read this book since I heard about it late last year, and the wait was definitely worth it. I knew that it had the potential to be as divisive as Crimson Peak, a film that I have reviewed on this blog a few years ago, and it’s because of the fundamental difference based on expectations. A large contingent of horror fans complained that Crimson Peak did not “count” as horror, which is something I hugely take issue with, because it feels the same to me as when metal dudebros tell me that some of my favourite heavy metal bands don’t “count” as heavy metal. My response is the same: there are many, many different shades and flavours of metal, and the same goes for horror. I rock out just as hard to Scar Symmetry as I do to Within Temptation, and I really wish that people would stop trying to privilege one type of metal over another or to say one type or subgenre is “superior” to another.
The same goes for people’s reactions to Crimson Peak. To anyone who says it isn’t a horror film, or it isn’t “real” horror, my response is that horror comes in many flavours. This film and story are part of the Gothic tradition. It isn’t as obvious. It isn’t as “in your face” and relies on different modes of storytelling than other types of horror. In no way am I saying it was a perfect film, by the way. I’m just calling out the fact that I’m tired of people who want to criticize and rag on Gothic horror because it isn’t as direct or obvious as other types of horror. And to this I say, I enjoy Wrath James White’s work just as much as I do stories like Crimson Peak. And this is a sentiment I shared about how I feel for The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel.
For those who need a quick refresher, Katrina Van Tassel is one of the main characters in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, aka the Headless Horseman. She was famously portrayed by Christina Ricci in the 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow, which was a reworking of the legend also starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. She is the main love interest in the story. Ichabod disappears at one point, never to appear again, with the message being that the Headless Horseman got to him.
In Spellbook, author Alyssa Palombo has written a novel told from Katrina’s point of view and her rundown of events concerning the legend of Sleepy Hollow. Because I walked into it with the expectation that this novel would have strong Gothic elements and tropes throughout, I enjoyed my reading experience. Fundamentally, I would classify this book more as a romance novel than I would a horror novel, or to be more accurate, it is a Gothic romance novel that includes and incorporates horror elements.
I feel that in some ways I kind of inhaled or devoured this book. I absolutely loved the way the author depicted and built the love between Ichabod and Katrina, and made it leap off the page. Even though I knew the story beats to expect, such as the fact that Ichabod would eventually disappear, I was absolutely glued to the pages and addicted to finding out what happened next.
The author captured Katrina’s antagonistic and harrowing relationship with Ichabod’s rival, Brom, very well, and even though there were times that their interactions came across as a little too melodramatic for my taste, Gothic romance is kind of a natural terrain for that (their scene near the end, which I won’t spoil…damn, that was amazing and heart-wrenching). I liked the author’s version of Katrina for the most part, although there were times I found her to be a bit too petulant, and some of her reactions could be obnoxious, but again, see above about the natural terrain of Gothic romances. However, even though I think the author added some nuance to Brom’s role, he came across as too one-dimensional to me at certain times. In spite of this, the way things built up to the end was explosive, and I really enjoyed the execution of that, which I felt was quite well-done.
Having said that, and without any spoilers, I was very unhappy with a major plot event and it was one of those things where even though I know why it happened, I still could not help but feel cheated as a reader at least to a degree. Despite this, I devoured this novel and thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. If you love Gothic literature that’s heavy on the romance but incorporates some interesting horror, you will love The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel.