As the two-year anniversary of this blog fast approaches, I recall one of my very first posts about books featuring wise women and witchery. This subject matter, it seems, never strays far from my bookshelf, and I’ve been happily engaged in reading another stack of necromancing novels. Some are new, some hark back a few decades, but, for various reasons, they’re all worthy of a look.
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2017)
Against the bustling backdrop of 1880s New York City, a trio of proudly independent young witches, each with her own secrets and struggles, operates a tearoom that dispenses more than just orange pekoe and oolong. Accepted by desperate-to-believe customers and reviled by others, the women stand against antifeminism and religious zealotry – and stumble down dark alleys and dank cellars into mystery and danger. McKay, author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, has clearly done her research. Her evocative descriptions of the city’s history and culture drew me into the genteel world of the well-heeled, the city’s poor and seedy underbelly, newfangled inventions and sensations such as the Egyptomania inspired by Cleopatra’s Needle. Victorian-style news clippings and advertisements for cure-all potions and fortune tellers illustrate the chapters and help propel the narrative. I did like the book, but the author’s penchant for cramming in every imaginable type of paranormal activity turned me off, so much so that I put the book down for several months before finishing it. I was glad I picked it up again, however. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief in a big way, I think you’ll find the novel’s atmosphere and historical tidbits entertaining and informative.
The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (Knight, 1973)
This children’s book, originally published in 1971, comes from the author of my favourite travel-romances and the Arthurian masterpieces, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I’m so happy to have tracked down a secondhand copy of this slim, 127-page novel, which I read in one avid sitting. It didn’t take long before the plot and many of the story’s elements began to feel hauntingly familiar. A lonely, awkward child of absentee parents is summoned to attend a college for witches. Amidst flying broomsticks (including a detailed description of the latest, most high-tech and expensive model), animal familiars, eccentric professors, creepy classrooms and magickal spells for Invisibility and Transformation, I couldn’t help but feel I’ve read and watched all these things before… . Could it be the author of that extraordinarily famous work (the best-selling book series in history, as a matter of fact) took her inspiration 20+ years later from Stewart’s little novel? I’ll never know, but I do know that I adore her tight narrative and descriptive passages – spare, yet so effective – such as this one:
“The trees were a dim shadowed huddle beyond the lawn. The hanging clouds above them had withdrawn a little, to show, beyond, a faint inlay of silver star-dust. The air was motionless. Two storeys below, on the darkness of the lawn, nothing stirred.”
Dark Witch by Nora Roberts (Berkley, 2013)
Having never read Roberts before, I picked this novel up only because it and its sequels, Shadow Spell (2014) and Blood Magick (2014) were bargain bin purchases. I’m always a bit leery about popular authors with dozens of titles to their names. I was half right in approaching this trilogy with caution. I liked the premise: modern American woman travels to England to meet long-lost cousins, one of whom is the local wise woman dispensing lotions and potions from her village workshop. The newcomer soon discovers a family talent for witchcraft, a new love, and an ancient enemy who traverses the ages to wreak his revenge. The prose can be repetitive – if I read the assertions “we’re family; we’re of the blood” one more time in the third volume which I’ve yet to tackle – I’ll surely cast a curse on someone! However, I am a sucker for herbs and cauldrons and the like, so this one was mostly my cup of tea. For more on the trilogy, see this post.
Witch by [Elizabeth Peters writing as] Barbara Michaels (Harper, 1973)
Note: This author is not to be confused with Ellis Peters, who wrote the most excellent Brother Cadfael series. Set in Virginia, this story follows the oh-so-familiar plot of single woman in a new town (this one full of narrow-minded, superstitious wackos), fixer-upper cottage in a secluded, mysterious wood, handsome neighbour, etc., etc. Michaels is another prolific author whose work I hadn’t previously sampled, and although this novel is suitable for a light read of a summer’s evening, it can’t hold a bell, book or candle to far superior efforts it tries to emulate (see a list here). Michaels fails to explore what could have been ghostly goodness; the eponymous “witch” is woefully underused, and the final twist too easy to decipher long before the story ends.
Herb of Grace by [Shelley Adina, writing as] Adina Senft (FaithWords, 2014)
Book One of the Healing Grace trilogy, this novel, which I picked up on spec from a convenience store on holiday two years ago, is set in the Pennsylvania Amish community and involves not a witch, pagans or the occult but a herbalist/healer-in-training on track to becoming the town Dockterfraa. References to medicinal plants abound (‘herb of grace’ is a folk name for rue), as do well-researched and respectful insights into Amish culture. Herb of Grace is nicely-written with a concise plot and good character development, served up with a gentle sweetness that I quite enjoyed. Needleworkers take heed! Senft has also published an Amish Quilt series.