Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Witches of New York

Author: Ami McKay
Genre: Historical Fiction (USA)
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 528
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Knopf Canada
First Published: October 25, 2016
First Line: "In the dusky haze of evening a ruddy-cheeked newsboy strode along Fifth Avenue proclaiming the future."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe beloved, bestselling author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure is back with her most beguiling novel yet, luring us deep inside the lives of a trio of remarkable young women navigating the glitz and grotesqueries of Gilded-Age New York by any means possible, including witchcraft... 

The year is 1880. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom ('Moth' from The Virgin Cure) has left her life in the sideshow to open a tea shop with another young woman who feels it's finally safe enough to describe herself as a witch: a former medical student and "gardien de sorts" (keeper of spells), Eleanor St. Clair. Together they cater to Manhattan's high society ladies, specializing in cures, palmistry and potions--and in guarding the secrets of their clients. 

All is well until one bright September afternoon, when an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment. Beatrice soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor's apprentice, but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences. She sees things no one else can see. She hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has she been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? 

Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity. Working with Dr. Quinn Brody, a talented alienist, she submits Beatrice to a series of tests to see if she truly can talk to spirits. Amidst the witches' tug-of-war over what's best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving them to wonder whether it was by choice or by force. 

As Adelaide and Eleanor begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they're confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

My Review:  What do magic, mystics, suffragists, female oppression and Cleopatra's Needle all have in common?  They're a mixed bag of topics but they're all important parts of The Witches of New York.

McKay's story focuses around three women who just happen to be witches - Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St Clair own a tea shop which is a front for their real services for women which include tarot card reading, palmistry, herbal medicines, contraception etc.  Beatrice Dunn is a teenager who comes to New York and becomes an apprentice at the tea shop.

My favourite part of this book was the vivid description of the era.  This book oozes with the atmosphere of the time so readers will have no trouble imagining New York in the 1880's. I thought that the inclusion of Cleopatra's Needle, as it was being brought to Central Park, was an interesting way to bring a real historical element to the book.  

This era was male dominated and while magic and mysticism was quite prevalent within all walks of life there were still many who held independent women, such as Eleanor and Adelaide, with contempt and suspicion. I enjoyed that these three witches weren't portrayed as devil worshipers but strong women trying to lead normal lives ... with a touch of magic.  Getting a peek into Eleanor's family grimoire was interesting and I liked how these three women used their magical abilities to help and empower others.

The book started off quite strong with the characters quite varied and the addition of Beatrice and her, as yet unknown, abilities had me intrigued.  You may think it odd but my favourite character was Perdu, Eleanor's raven.  He was the most interesting character to me but sadly the mystery surrounding him is one of the loose ends that isn't dealt within this book which was disheartening. 

I found this to be quite a slow-paced book with a rather straightforward plot.  While it does have some suspense that builds, the conclusion is quite predictable.  There are a few 'baddies' thrown in to spice things up, like a jealous husband and Francis Townsend, a sadistic, religious zealot.  Both of these men bring some much needed energy to the book but I can't help but feel that these bad guys were portrayed as the clich├ęd villains. I wish this suspense could have been used more throughout instead of just at the end.

What McKay does give her readers is a strikingly vivid picture of life in 1880's NYC.  I enjoyed the addition of ghosts, mystics and magic as well as seeing how these strong, independent women handled being seen as threatening to the male-dominated culture.  But with the slow pace and the predictable ending I liked this book, I just didn't' love it.  In the end, this was a wonderfully atmospheric novel that puts female friendship, love and witchcraft in the forefront.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Knopf Canada for providing me with a paper copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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