The Witch’s Market, by Mingmei Yip

I always struggle writing review books that left me with a profound feeling of meh. Books I enjoy I can gush about for paragraphs. Equally, I can rant for paragraphs about books I didn’t enjoy. When a book barely moves the needle, I have to figure out how to write a shrug.

The Witch's Market
The Witch’s Market

The Witch’s Market, by Mingmei Yip, drew me in with its premise. The protagonist, Eileen Chen, was trained as a shaman by her grandmother. She later turned to academia and is now an expert in Chinese witchcraft and magic—at least, the anthropology of these topics. Her own abilities are a little rusty. Her dreams and a desire to write a book comparing Chinese witchcraft to Western varieties of witchcraft leads Eileen to the Canary Islands. I’ve been fascinated by Chinese magical practices lately and have never, literally or textually, been to the Canary Islands. So, I asked NetGalley for a copy. Once I got into the book, well, I started to have problems with the writing style.

It’s one of the oldest clichés of writing: show, don’t tell. The Witch’s Market never shows. Everything is told. And when everything is told, a reader never gets a sense of place or depth. This book could have taken place anywhere for all the local color Yip included. Because character motivations are explained—usually sooner rather than later—there’s no point wondering about anything.

The thing that really drove me nuts about this book was Eileen herself. Eileen is a leaf; she goes wherever the wind blows her. I may have taken such a dislike to her because her ability to say “yes” to (nearly) every invitation made her book disappear further and further into the background. I spend my days telling students not to procrastinate. Eileen, by my lights, is a huge procrastinator when it comes to her actual work.

When I asked for The Witch’s Market, I was expecting a book with much more magic in it. The Witch’s Market is a mystery more than anything else. When Eileen arrives in Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria, she goes looking for witches. Her quest sends her to Tenerife, the island just west of Gran Canaria. It isn’t long before the wealthy, handsome, older man and his cirrhotic ex-lover. The new acquaintances lead Eileen to try and solve the mystery of the ex-lover’s daughter’s death and son’s disappearance. Because Eileen vacillates between pity and exasperation for Sabrina, the rich man’s ex-lover, only the fact that Eileen is being haunted by said daughter explains why she turns detective at all.

Is The Witch’s Market worth reading? I finished it, because I was interested in the bits of Chinese magic and thought that are scattered throughout the narrative like bits of an academic paper that got lost. I wasn’t invested in the characters or story at all. And, as I said before, there’s so little description of the setting that this book could’ve been set anywhere—so that doesn’t give readers an incentive to read the book for a fictional trip to the Canary Island. The Witch’s Market could have been a lot worse; it’s certainly not terrible. It’s just not all that good, I’m sorry to say.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 24 November 2015.

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