Title The Witches of New York
Author Ami McKay
Genre Historical Fiction, Paranormal Fantasy
Publisher Knopf Canada
Publication Date October 25, 2016
Setting New York, 1880
Synopsis: In the year 1880, as suffragettes roamed the streets of New York demanding civil rights and Cleopatra’s Needle slowly made its way from the banks of Hudson River to Greywacke Knoll, witches and witch hunts were far from being a thing of the past. But just as the settlers of Salem misdirected their fear and abuse, the religious fanatics of the Gilded-Age failed to appreciate the value of suffragettes and witches alike, in differentiating them as well as realizing their commonalities. At a time like this, Beatrice Dunn, a country orphan living with her spinster aunt responds to an advertisement placed by two self-sufficient witches, Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom, to help around their shop of alternate solutions to womanly woes, St. Clair & Thom: Tea & Sympathy. Beatrice’s arrival in New York City coincides that of the Egyptian Obelisk and her first adventure in the city is to touch the monument, her innate magic only serving to draw from its magic. Sensing her as a kindred sister, she is hired by Eleanor immediately, though Eleanor had first objected to Adelaide’s ad. Adelaide is slower to be convinced and only accepts Beatrice when the younger woman demonstrates an ability to see and communicate with netherworld dwellers. Adelaide takes on Beatrice as a show-stopper for their enterprise while Eleanor sees the girl as a magical apprentice to be honed and cherished. As the more experienced witches go about passing on their wisdom and craft to the newly initiated, and Beatrice tries to navigate between the two people looking out for her “best interests”, a sinister predator lurks in the background. Reverend Francis Townsend is a preacher revered by his parish for his austere regulations, but when no one is looking, he takes it upon himself to punish and rid the world of “devil worshipers”. And he is on the warpath to save the lovely Beatrice who has been “bewitched” by the ladies of the tea shop.
Experience: The first thing I noticed while reading this book was McKay’s unique writing style. With descriptive short sentences, she very economically sets up and explores the setting of the novel, flitting from scene to concise scene. It gives the readers glimpses of the various active characters (minor as well as major) of the plot from the get-go. At first, I was not able to comprehend why so many different characters were being introduced at once (I lost my place in the novel numerous times) but, eventually, the bigger picture began to form. It helped me, as a writer, to see how completely unrelated characters may go through the world [i.e. of the novel] to coalesce in a series of events that provides deeper exposure into the main characters of the plot. Once I managed to settle down with the book, I could appreciate the nuances of the various heroines, their counterparts, and the villain better. But it took me a while to settle down.
I think my favorite character of the novel was Adelaide Thom, who is apparently the heroine of a previous book, “Moth” in The Virgin Cure. Adelaide is not a typical heroine of all goodness. She has been abused by life, having lost an eye and been left with the scars from an acid attack by a jealous mad woman, and this has left her heart riddled with cynicism. She is often self-serving and refuses Eleanor’s (who really is the mothering type of good sort) advice as well as her magical visions when it suits her immediate agenda. This brews the main conflict of the novel and inadvertently propagates the climax. But essentially, she has a good heart and can be kind to those in need of kindness. What makes her interesting is her wholly unapologetic claim to procure that which she believes she wants and deserves, perfectly in line with the background activity of the suffragettes. The happy aspect is that while she runs from romance, she manages to find the perfect hero for herself in this book, a man with an equal number of imperfections but an open-minded and perhaps more compassionate spirit.
However, the novel is not without flaws. I felt that although the various glimpses into minor characters added to the main character developments, effectively the mystery of the novel was lost a little too early in the novel. While the arrangement of the chapters was such that it jumped from character to character so that each aspect of the story developed parallel to the others to accommodate the passage of time, but it left me a bit frustrated to have to keep breaking off just when things start to get interesting. Perhaps it also intended to keep the pages turning but it, in fact, made me slower to adhere to the novel with any form of gusto. I could easily put aside the novel and pick it up later (in fact, at one point I completely left to read another book), and by the time the story returned to one character development, the interest was lost. The whole business made it a very slow read.
Recommendation: This is a tough one. Although I found the story pleasant enough, if the purpose of reading is to be enthralled by a page-turning plot, I say leave off. Our TBR lists are long enough and those seeking entertainment are better off without this book. However, if you are a writer and wish to explore new writing styles and voices to find your place in the authorship, this might provide an interesting experience.