The Bitterwine Oath by Hannah West purports itself to be a Gothic supernatural thriller along the lines of Buffy. Except, it really isn’t. It takes a lot for any story to live up to a Gothic moniker or compare to Buffy, and Ms. West’s attempt fails on many counts.
No matter what era, most Gothic novels contain exquisite descriptions that are both effective in establishing not only the setting but also the otherworldly feel of the story. Ms. West attempts to accomplish this in The Bitterwine Oath. Rather than succeeding, however, her novel contains some of the most flowery descriptions I have ever read. I would even go so far as to say that there is not an adjective left for Ms. West to use because every noun in her story has at least one adjective tied to it. Instead of evocative and almost ethereal writing, we get a writing style that is so obvious and in-your-face as to be a turnoff.
The story itself is not much better. Romanticized, predictable, and safe, there is nothing truly horrifying about The Bitterwine Oath. Neither is there anything surprising about its plot. You know who the next victims are going to be, and you can guess that plot progression well before anything happens.
What really causes The Bitterwine Oath to be a failure is its treatment of women. Ms. West attempts to make her story an ode to female victims of violence but fails. Case in point, the curse was originally meant to mark those men who have committed crimes against women or who will do so at some point in time in the future. It is a noble cause, right? After all, rapists and abusers tend to hide in plain sight, especially in the 1900s when women still had few legal rights. Except, the curse backfires and ends up targeting boys and men who are not guilty of such crimes. In attempting to gain back some power from men who relish taking it away from women, the girls cast a curse which makes them the guilty party.
To make matters worse, breaking the curse does not require power or magic words. It only requires forgiveness by the descendants of the girls who cast the original curse. So, men really don’t get punished for their crimes. Instead, innocent men suffer from the spite and fury of wronged women. And, women have to clean up their own mess. So much for a good revenge story in which the guilty get their just desserts.
The Bitterwine Oath is a disappointment in many ways. Not very Gothic and definitely not akin to Buffy, it struggles with predictability and a distinct lack of horror. Plus, not only is the writing style poor, but the story itself tries to be the next female empowerment story but fails spectacularly. Female empowerment stories should not protect the abusers, but that is what The Bitterwine Oath ultimately does. If that sort of thing bothers you as much as it does me, it is better to skip The Bitterwine Oath altogether. There are much better examples of Gothic horror novels in which female victims get the justice they deserve.