Posts Tagged Historical Fiction
Title Rules of Magic
Series Practical Magic #00
Author Alice Hoffman
Genre Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication Date October 10, 2017
Setting New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s
Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.
Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.
Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.
The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.
Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.
As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.
Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.
Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.
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.