Posts Tagged Writing
Title Bewitching the Duke
Series Wise Woman #01
Author Christie Kelly
Genre Historical Fiction | Regency Romance
Publication Date December 6, 2016
Setting Regency England
Synopsis: It’s 1814 and while the upper crust English “Society” has come to consult certified physicians for their medical needs, plebeians continue to depend on the local wise women to take care of everything from delivering babies and setting bones to cleansing homes by burning sage and ensuring a good harvest for the season. Selina White, the wise woman at the Duke of Northrop’s country seat, takes her role in the community seriously, upholding generations of tradition passed down through the female line in her family. Her efforts are appreciated by one and all in the region except the Duke himself, who has deigned to grace his estate after having abandoned it to decline for nearly a decade. Colin Barrett’s disparage of wise women stems less from the growing belief that medicine should be administered only by university-trained male physicians and more from his history with Selina’s mother, the former wise woman of his land whom he blames for the death of his wife and baby during childbirth. So when he unwillingly returns to his ancestral home that holds so many tortured memories to arrange a wedding, only to discover Selina very much active in practicing her craft not only among his tenants but also within his household, he is incensed. First, he throws her out of his home and then he banishes her from his land. However, he miscalculates her determination to do her duty by his people as well as the loyalty said people harbor towards her in return. Pretty soon his servants are sneaking her back into Northrop, hiding her right under his nose in the unoccupied wing of his house, and business recommences as usual. To further complicate the matter, with every chance encounter, the instantaneous attraction that sparked between Colin and Selina when they first met continues to grow – an attraction that begins to transcend their individual prejudices and encounters that become less and less chance on both sides.
Experience: In all honesty, I’m a snob when it comes to book covers. The illustration absolutely plays a part in whether I’ll invest in the book because, to me, it shows that no effort was spared from start to finish. And this book’s cover instinctively warned me to not pick it up. Nevertheless, when I read the blurb and learned the premise of the book, I was intrigued and decided to risk it. It so happens that Bewitching the Duke confirmed both my earlier misgivings as well as my latter anticipations. The premise of the story does manage to uphold the originality it promised and the cover of the book accurately portends its poor execution. However, that is not to say this book was a total loss.
Let’s discuss the premise first, which after all helped me move past my superciliousness. Immediately, we are informed how the advent of modern medicine threatened both the livelihood and the tradition of wise women in the English society even as the poor continued to depend on them because male physicians were more expensive as well as due to the somewhat retained superstitions that surrounded these women’s healing capabilities. We are introduced – though it is kept in the background for most of the novel – the transferal of the role of the “caretaker” of people’s wellbeing from the female to the male, bringing into sentience yet another instance of how the culture of gender inequality became more dominant as the old religions receded further into obscurity. [I should acknowledge here that I love a story that makes me dive into a little history research of my own!] In Bewitching the Duke, the change comes in the form of the Duke of Northrop who openly declares Selina a hack upon his return to the country and uses her mother’s role in the fatal childbirth that prematurely terminated his domestic happiness as evidence. While his tenants and servants continue to store their faith in her powers, he does not make it easy for them to access her services.
This premise also neatly proceeds to generate not only the romantic conflict in the plot, i.e. a man who blames a wise woman for the death of his wife and child cannot fall in love with her daughter who also is a wise woman and vice versa, as well as the character arcs for both the hero and heroine, given that Colin is unable to move past the memories of his loss to allow himself to love again while Selina herself harbors a guilty secret surrounding the said loss. The trajectory of the story is set with ease and since romance novels generally promise happily-ever-after, we know that somehow the two main characters will have to get over their individual issues and the “wise woman” must rise to the occasion to reign supreme. Yay!
Except, maybe the historical accuracy is completely forsaken to keep the premise of novel adjustable to its length and, thus, the level of effort required, i.e. to say, the story was set a century or three too late. By the nineteenth century, wise women had largely receded into the background of society, most of them having suffered enough horrors related to being labeled “witches” to justly hide their abilities from the public. If these women still dared practice medicine, it was in secret. Say, for the sake of the plot, we, as readers, accept that wise women continued to openly practice their crafts in some remote corners of England where people were optimistically more open-minded, the novel completely avoids any mention of the religious persecution and social ostracism “alternative healers” suffered in the historical period immediately preceding the time in which the novel is set. For me, that was a no-no. Even if the author wished to have none of that “cloaked in the danger of religious persecution” mystery hanging ominously over the characters’ heads, why avoid any mention of what had once happened to Selina’s kind when her knowledge and powers still carried the same mysticism as witches? Alas, a lovely premise was thus unhappily stifled for the convenience of the narration and the result was a loss of intrigue and integrity that encompassed the true history of the subject.
The characters themselves were simple enough to follow. I felt, while they lacked depth, the romance between them brewed in a forthright fashion that I could appreciate. They were obviously each meant to grow out of their attractions and dilemmas towards one another rather than alone, which is always appreciated in a romance novel. It cries true of the notion that true love takes precedence over past conflicts. Yet, the characters were put upon more as plot devices than entities in and of themselves and kept switching foot on one another to add more twists that the story could have just as easily have done without.
There was one particular part of the novel where I could not reconcile with Selina’s character. When Colin confesses to her that he thought he saw the ghost of his dead wife in the unoccupied third floor window of his house, Selina does not set his mind at ease even though she realizes he had mistaken her passing the window for his wife’s ghost; instead, she enjoys a private bit of joke at his expense. This does not present a raving endorsement of her character as a human being, does it, especially when considering how tortured Colin has always been about losing his duchess?
I did enjoy a glimpse of the country life in the story though, which retained the essence of the hypothesis the author was aiming for, i.e. the continued importance of the wise woman in a country neighborhood where people can barter for her services and believe in the influences of pagan rituals without fear of ridicule. This is nicely reinforced with a scene in a fortuneteller’s tent at the traveling fair that all the primary romantic characters of the series attended. The fact the fortuneteller’s words are taken more seriously than a simple diversion shows the reader that here is a society that is not entirely jumping to relinquish the old ways. This I found refreshing and reason enough to keep reading.
Recommendation: Despite some flaws, the story is actually an original one and may be appreciated by readers who are suckers for historical romance and mysticism. Just remember, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”
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.