Cover of the Bitterwine Oat by Hannah West. A sharped tooth animal skull rises behind the title on a magenta background

About the Book

Title: The Bitterwine Oath
Published: 2021

Cover Story: I Do Not Drink…Wine
Drinking Buddy: Senior Year
MPAA Rating: R (Intense horror sequences, alcohol use, sexuality)
Talky Talk: Unlikely Hero
Bonus Factors: Small Town Curse, Coven
Bromance Status: Same Time Next Century

Cover Story: I Do Not Drink…Wine

Nice, creepy monster mouth there, though the dark purple on black scheme kind of makes the eye miss it. Honestly, the first time I really looked at the cover was right now so I could write this blurb.

The Deal:

Every small town has that local horror story: The ghost lights. The murder house. The haunted cemetery. The creepy, dead end road. And San Solano, Texas, is no exception. Nat Colter has grown up hearing about what happened in 1921, when those four witches cast a spell that killed a dozen men, burned houses, and caused the baptistry to flow with blood. Or something like that. Just grim tales to frighten your friends over the campfire.

Except it happened again. In 1971, another dozen men were killed under mysterious circumstances. And this was recently enough that it was well-documented. And, well, those first two incidents happened exactly fifty years apart. And here it is, 2021…

As tourists flood the town, trying to hold seances in the church where all this began, Nat and her friends are looking to have one more great summer before college. Drink some beer, raise a little hell, and maybe find romance. Nat is still smarting over how her old friend Levi kissed her last year, and then ghosted her. But now that he had to drop of of college and move back home, maybe they can pick things up again.

But Nat is starting to realize that maybe all this talk about witches and monsters isn’t just a lot of small town hokum. Strange dreams haunt her every night. She’s attacked by something in the woods. Mutilated animal corpses start appearing around town. It’s easy to blame the tourists, but is that’s what’s really happening?

And why is her best friend Lindsey acting so weird and secretive? And most of her other friends? In fact, a good portion of the female population of San Solano. Do they know something? And are they going to let Nat in on their secret?

Drinking Buddy: Senior Year

Two pints of beer cheersing

Nat was the kind of person you wish you were buddies with in high school. A runner, smart, kind, brave…and yet, easily hurt. Levi, her good buddy since forever, kissed her, and she thought maybe this was the beginning of something life-altering. And…then he just goes off to college and never mentions it again. We’ve all had brief romantic encounters that we thought might turn into a happily ever after, only to realize maybe it didn’t mean anything to the other person. Also, Nat has to fight all these undead monsters, which is really a pain in the ass.

MPAA Rating: R (Intense horror sequences, alcohol use, sexuality)

So whatever killed those guys the last two times, it’s back. And it’s an amalgam of human and animal remains stitched together by some unspeakable evil that stalks the woods outside of town by night. Now in 1921 and 1971, the victims were a lot of deadwood: child molesters, drunks, and other people no one especially missed. But this time, things might not be as clear cut. What if, for instance, Levi was targeted? Or someone even closer to Nat?

Talky Talk: Unlikely Hero

In a lot of books like this, the heroine swoops in, a flaming combination of Katniss, Hermione, and Wonder Woman, facing down the villains with a gleam in her eye and a sarcastic quip or two. That’s why Nat was a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t want to fight undead monsters. She doesn’t want to go creeping around in the haunted woods and church basements. She’s supposed to be going off to college in a few months, and maybe making time with Levi. It’s only when her friends and family are threatened does she decide she has to make a stand. This makes her relatable and was what made the book charming.

Bonus Factor: Small Town Curse

Black and white photo of an abandoned house

Skinless Pete. Mothman. Spring-Heeled Jack. The Jersey Devil. La Llorona. Every place on earth that that stretch of railroad track, that cave, that abandoned factory, or lonely road with a bad reputation. In San Solano, it’s the local church. But it’s not an abandoned church, they still have services there. And not creepy, culty, Latin services, but ones with children’s Sunday school and potluck dinners. So why is this town so popular with ghost hunters? Why do self-professed psychics find the town so enthralling? Is San Solan truly a cursed area, or is that just something they made up for the tourists?

Bonus Factor: Coven

girl wearing black in a pointy witch hat

It’s well known that some of the women in town are descendants of the original 1921 troublemakers. And that some of the older women dabble in witchcraft of the Earth Mother tradition. And yes, Nat’s grandmother had an extreme mental breakdown, almost burning her own house down and carving strange runes into the floor under her bed.

And now that a hundred years have passed, it’s time Nat learned the truth. A lot of the women in town are Warders, powerful beings tasked with keeping the monsters at bay and saving San Solano’s oblivious menfolk from becoming zombies. Nat is one of them (as was her grandmother). And she has the potential to become an incredible leader.

And this isn’t just a lot of herbs and blessings. No, they have an entire secret hideout under the church, with a library of arcane texts, antique firearms, a potion laboratory, and other cool stuff. The day of the Claiming is coming, and the Warders are the only ones that can plug up that gate to hell for another fifty years.

Except…why did Nat’s grandmother warn her not to join up? Why do the other Warders refuse to listen to Nat’s plans for shutting down the monsters for good? Are the old ways truly the best ways?

Bromance Status: Same Time Next Century

While I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this book any time soon, I will be checking out the next work by the author.

Literary Matchmaking

H.P. Lovecraft

This book had a very Lovecraftian vibe.

Summoned

Another unlikely hero fights a Nameless Evil in Anne Pillsworth’s Summoned.

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza

As does The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free ARC from the publisher, but no mysterious journals that contain the secrets of the universe (or cash).

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.