The Witches of New York by Ami McKay
The Witches of New York was one of my October reads and so this review is a little bit late unfortunately! I enjoyed this, Ami McKay can certainly write an evocative tale. I must start out by saying though that this isn’t a fast paced romp through the streets of New York so if that’s what you’re looking for then this might not be for you. What I thought was really good here however is that our three main women/witches are enlightened, intelligent and spirited young females living during a period of change and unrest. It was a nice change of step to have the real horrors of the story being encompassed in the other characters rather than our three females being portrayed as green skinned, warty witches who fly on broomsticks and cackle. Let’s face it, green fingers and an affinity with herbs doesn’t make you evil after all!
This is very much a tale of tea and sympathy. Set during the late 19th century the bulk of the story is based around a tea shop run by Eleanor St Clair and Adelaie Thorn. The two of them administer cures, potions and a little bit of soothsaying to the upper class females of Manhattan society. Then Beatrice Dunn arrives at their tea shop. She’s a young woman who seems to be coming into her own magical abilities. She arrived at the tea shop in search of work and Eleanor took her under her wing and started to teach her bits and pieces. Now, this is an enlightened age, one of discovery and change and of course with change comes fear and those who would harm the ones who threaten their way of life. It seems that something evil stalks the streets of New York looking to cast out demons and convert those that have been tempted by the devil. When Beatrice mysteriously disappears a desperate search begins to try and find her before she can come to harm.
So, the characters. All three women have something of a history which is woven into the fabric of the story. Eleanor describes herself as a witch. She now owns her mother’s grimoire and is usually accompanied around the place by a Raven known as Perdu. Eleanor believes in messages delivered through dreams and in that respect she could have a point as her dreams are sometimes fed by entities known here as ‘The Dearlies’. She’s an expert at mixing tea to help with all kinds of maladies and is something of a gentle character. Adelaide on the other hand is the soothsayer of the two. She reads palms and cards and is a firm favourite of the high class women who patronise the shop in search of answers. Adelaide has a very curious history – one that has left her scarred physically. I have to say that I really liked Adelaide, she was my favourite of the three – simply because she was so forthright and strong willed. Beatrice is in the flush of youth. She’s quite shy and although she is quite enamoured of the idea of witches and anything ‘fantastical’ she comes across as fairly mundane as the story begins. Something happens to Beatrice on the way to New York and to be honest I’m not quite sure if the inference here is that that experience opened up her mind to ‘other’ possibilities or whether these were about to manifest anyway. Regardless of my speculation, Beatrice ‘sees dead people’. She sees ghosts virtually everywhere and quite often they want to talk to her.
Apart from the females we also make the acquaintance of Dr Brody, a scientist who is conducting experiments on an invention of his that channels spirits of the dead – this does give him a particular interest in Beatrice and through an introduction via Adelaide he persuades her to help him put on a ghostly show. We also have The Reverend, who is the villain of the peace. I think I read him as somebody who has become mentally unhinged – he thinks he’s saving souls but he’s driven by insane fanaticism and his actions become more and more frantic as the story progresses.
I thought the writing was really lovely, the author manages to evoke a strong sense of place and ‘feel’ for the era itself. The desire to break free of social trappings that a lot of females felt and also the sense of a world on the cusp of all sorts of ground breaking discoveries. A time of change and adaptation. Women, formerly cosseted, corseted and closeted, want more. There was also a tiny bit of sadness with the change – maybe unintentional – but almost a fear that, yes, things, were changing and with that change the age of superstition, folklore and things that go bump in the dark would make way for a new era of science where people would no longer have time for such flights of fancy.
In terms of criticisms. Well, as I mentioned at the start, this is a very slow moving story and in fact the plot is, not to lay too fine a point on it, quite thin. The last few chapters pick up some speed and tension but otherwise this simply isn’t a book that you race through. Also, well, the magical/fantasy elements were also very low key. You could be forgiven for thinking that the witchcraft is more herb lore and the rest maybe whim! I think I would have liked a bit more strength in that respect and particularly the darker elements of the story – it could have been a lot more creepy quite easily but then I guess it may have discouraged other readers. The only other notion that did strike me was that in an environment of women who can see, hear and feel all sorts of things out of the ordinary, not to mention look right into the future, those abilities failed them a little in the face of the real threat of the story.
Still, in spite of my niggles I enjoyed this. If you want to read a historical novel of friendship, with light touches of fantasy in terms of witchcraft and other elements then this could be for you. This was a good read and although I can’t see that further books are intended I would definitely read more of Adelaide, Beatrice and Eleanor’s endeavours if more books are forthcoming.
I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for which my thanks. The above is my own opinion.