Charlie Jane Anders picks the best science fiction of the month

When Megan Giddings told her agent she wanted to write a novel about witches, he told her: “If anybody can make them feel new, it’s you.” In the acknowledgments of her new novel, The Women Could Fly” (Amistad), Giddings says she didn’t entirely agree with him that witches feel like a tired subgenre; to her, there’s always room for another take.

Luckily for anyone who feels the same way, a wealth of novels about witches has come out recently — and many of them do feel brand new.

Science fiction, fantasy, thriller? Books we love but can’t define.

To be sure, many recent witch novels explore timeworn themes: Witches are distrusted and feared and must conceal themselves from the world. But Giddings and other authors also uncover fresh layers to the classic witch tales, exploring the complexity of anti-witch attitudes in an enriching and timely way.

“The Women Could Fly” is an absolute triumph. It takes place in a world like ours, but where laws against witchcraft are still routinely used to police women. Any unmarried woman over age 30 is suspected of witchcraft and placed under surveillance and may no longer be able to hold down a job. Nobody seems entirely sure whether witchcraft is real, and the laws are applied inconsistently, which feels all too believable.

Giddings conjures up a world that feels familiar, despite the increasingly creepy hints of dystopia. And along the way, she shows what the anti-witch crusaders really fear most: our ability to create a better world if we work together.

The theme of community is also strong in The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches” (Berkley), by Sangu Mandanna. At the center of the story is Mika Moon, who was raised under one unshakable law: Witches must live apart from each other. Mika has never put down roots, moving constantly to avoid anyone learning about her magical powers. But when she’s hired to teach three young witches living in a secluded house, she discovers how much better it is to be part of a witch family.

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The story is full of romance and chosen family, with just the right amount of whimsy. Mika is an engaging protagonist, full of snark and fire, yet constantly startled whenever anybody actually cares about her. Reading about Mika’s slow healing from the wounds of her lonesome is a healing experience for the reader, too.

The Drowned Woods,” by Emily Lloyd-Jones (Little, Brown) is a magical caper set about Mer, the last living “water witch,” who can both sense and control water. She has been living on the run for years, an escapee from forced labor by the ruthless Prince Garanhir. Then the prince’s former spymaster approaches Mer with a plan to steal the prince’s treasure, with a team of rogues that includes a corgi that might be a spy for the faeries. Lloyd-Jones uses her Welsh setting and its faerie mythos to great effect. But her keenly observed descriptions of water, from the sewers to the ocean, are what make “The Drowned Woods” — a young-adult book perfectly suitable for an older audience — something to savor.

Desideria Mesa’s Bindle Punk Bruja” (Harper Collins) expands on the theme of characters hiding their true identities. Luna is the only member of her Mexican-immigrant family who can pass for White. She changes her name to Rose and moves among the elite of Prohibition-era Kansas City. By day, she works as a newspaper reporter, and by night she runs a speakeasy — but she constantly has to hide who she is.

When gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan target her, she has to find a way to access the magical powers she inherited from her grandmother. The story takes a while to get going, and the Prohibition gangster-speak feels broad at times, but Luna’s identity crisis, and the magical awakening that comes with it, are fascinating and exciting.

We can’t possibly have too many witch books. Witches provide a powerful metaphor for stigmatized people being forced to live underground. These four new books show us how powerful it can be when these people find each other.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “Victories Greater Than Death” and “Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak,” the first two books in a young-adult trilogy. Her other books include “The City in the Middle of the Night” and “All the Birds in the Sky.” She’s won the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Lambda Literary, Crawford and Locus awards.

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