Adventures in Pagan Fiction: Cate Tiernan’s “Sweep” Series

I was poking around the local library the other day and was completely shocked to see copies of Cate Tiernan’s “Sweep” series in the Young Adult shelves. I say shocked because, while they were fairly popular in their first run between January 2001 and August 2003, I never would have pegged them as multi-edition material. I fully expected that they’d be lost to the pop-culture graveyard of the early-oughts, rather like slap bracelets and the early-90s. But, no, here all fifteen books are, newly printed and with pretty new covers to boot:

This has to be a 3rd or 4th iteration of the Sweep covers. At least in this run they group the 15 short novels into 5 manageable books. And the covers aren’t so black and campy.

Now, these books played a happy role in my nascent paganism.  Their publication dates spanned the second half of my high school junior year to the first month I began college, and I loved them dearly.  I think, though, that part of their appeal was how much I could identify with their main protagonist, Morgan Rowlands.  I was born in December of 1983 and her fictional birthdate was November 1984.  Morgan and her best friend had crushes on the boys in the band Hanson when they were in eighth grade, as did my friends and I, and swore those crushes to eternal secrecy in ninth, just as my cohort did.  (For the record, I was an Isaac girl.)  We were alike enough that, when I began reading these books, I almost felt that what was happening to Morgan could happen to me, too.  I let go of my Sweep books not long after starting college and forgot all about them until today, which brings us to this less rose-colored review.

A quick Google search will tell you that Sweep was written by Gabrielle Charbonnet under the much more Gaelic-sounding pseudonym of Cate Tiernan, which is probably calculated given how many liberties she takes with Irish culture as the series progresses–perhaps she thought the name would give her more authority?  Unfortunately for us, the liberties she takes with Wicca are far worse than those she takes with Irish culture.

The series starts out innocuous enough.  Morgan Rowlands is a normal enough American girl in a small, ruralish town.  She’s smart–especially in math where she’s been advanced up a year–but plain and vaguely tomboyish.  Consequently, she often feels inadequate compared to other girls, even her best friend Bree Warren, who is so pretty and glamorous she could be a model.  And then, The Boy appears:  Cal Blaire.  Cal is gorgeous, with this almost magnetic sex-appeal…and he’s a witch.  Soon enough he rallies together Morgan and her friends for a Mabon celebration and they form a little coven that is, for all intents and purposes,  exactly what teenage covens were like in the late 1990s.  Morgan starts showing a greater aptitude for witchcraft than the others, and Cal finds that attractive.  Consequently, he and Morgan start dating, which alienates Morgan from most of the other girls at school, including her best friend.  By the end of the first novel, Tiernan tells us why Morgan is so craft-talented:  she’s a Blood Witch.  Yup, that’s right.  Under Tiernan’s pen, Wicca ends up not being a religion but rather the byproduct of a thousand-year old blood feud between seven different clans of witches, with each clan falling somewhere on a spectrum of total evil to total good.

I know.  As much as I enjoyed that first book, I cried, too, when this development took place.

While the first two books in the series actually do have some nice depictions of generalized Wiccan practice all wrapped up in a Twilight-esque saccharine bow, the series quickly escalates to being entirely about Morgan’s savior-esque role in this epic blood feud.  While that ends up being interesting enough, Tiernan never drops the alignment of Wicca with her fictional Blood Witches…and that’s deeply problematic.  A Saturday Night Live skit about American Otaku culture once made the point that there’s a fine line between homage and racisim.  There’s a similar line when you’re discussing religion, and Tiernan sails right on past it.

I am of the belief that the fictional witch is a cultural staple, and she’s going nowhere fast.  I also feel that she in herself has almost nothing to do with Wicca and Paganism.  When you call fictional witches Wiccans, though, you’re playing with fire.  Contemporary Wiccans, Witches, and Pagans have about as much in common with the Wicked Witch of the West as a chihuahua has with a wolf.

I wish that Tiernan had taken more steps to differentiate between Wicca and her Blood Witches.  (It certainly didn’t help that her whole series was actually titled Wicca in Great Britain.)  Morgan’s story itself is enjoyable–if ultimately clichéd and derivative–and the first couple books do give a decent depiction of what it was like to be a new pagan teen in the late 1990s/early 2000s.  Unfortunately, the close alignment between the types of witches is potentially dangerous to the Pagan community, especially given the murders and abuses that happen toward the end of the series’ conclusion.  As much as I loved these books in 2002, I must admit that their greatest use to the Pagan community today is in providing kindling for our campfires.  Let’s hope that Penguin Press retires them soon.


2 thoughts on “Adventures in Pagan Fiction: Cate Tiernan’s “Sweep” Series

  1. This is the first review I read that wasn’t exactly positive about the series, concerning the religious subject. I really really really loved these books in my teen years and I still do til this day. They even got me so far I wanted to become a witch myself and I started to do more research on the subject. Eventually I decided wicca wasn’t for me, however I still have a soft spot for it (hope that isn’t wrong or disrespectful). I’m glad that I found your review though. It’s good to know these things, you gave me more insight.

  2. I fully agree that the depiction of Wicca is off the wall. However, this is fiction! Nobody is using this as a how-to guide to religion. I hope they aren’t retired, I feel her addition of clans was exciting and fantastic. I’ve been initiated myself and find no offense here. Sorry to hear someone attempt to speak for an entire community instead of claiming these opinions as solely their own.

    Side note, this was a refreshing review! Keep putting them out there kid!

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