There is a feeling throughout Ami McKay’s entertaining novel, The Witches of New York, of a gathering storm. A war is brewing in New York between witches and their traditional enemies—people who take Exodus 22:18 very seriously—backed by some very scary demons. As the novel picks up speed, that feeling of dread builds, right up to the nail-bitingly tense ending. I hope that this book has sequels, because I enjoyed my walk on the wild side of a magical fin de siècle New York.
In September of 1880, Beatrice Dunn makes a wish: that she will become the shop assistant at Tea and Sympathy in New York. Because she makes the wish using a witch’s ladder charm, events line up to take her straight there and land the job. Her employers, Eleanor and Adelaide, are real witches and the perfect guides to help Beatrice explore the supernatural. Things aren’t that simple, though Beatrice doesn’t learn this until quite a bit later. Chapters narrated by other characters, accompanied by newspaper clippings and excerpts from a pamphlet by Cotton Mather on how to break a bewitching let us know that Beatrice, Eleanor, and Adelaide face serious danger from the deranged reverend at a nearby church, his equally disturbed organist, and their mysterious patron.
I was less interested in Beatrice (who serves mostly as plot catalyst and character-who-has-things-explained-to-them) than in her employers. Both Eleanor and Adelaide have fascinating and detailed backstories. Through them, we learn about the secret history of witchcraft (Eleanor) and the more scammy side (Adelaide) of fortune-telling and cold reading. Eleanor is cautious, devoted to her craft, and provides some much needed wisdom for Beatrice. Adelaide helps the girl develop confidence, by showing her how to put on a performance. (If this book had been more lighthearted, Adelaide would be a master of headology.)
There is a strong feminist streak in The Witches of New York. The witches, for all their faults, are sympathetically portrayed. Their opposites are very much not. The reverend and the organist, Mrs. Piddock, have the worst traits of un-Christian Christians: judgmental, unforgiving, fundamentalist, Puritanical. Mrs. Piddock is devoted to her faith. She believes she’s doing the right thing by stalking and harassing the witches, trying to keep people away from them. The reverend is a serial killer in the trappings of a witch hunter and man of God. Neither of them has a redeeming feature and there’s no doubt who we’re supposed to root for. I’m all for feminism, but it’s less interesting to me when our nuanced heroes take on unambiguously evil villains.
Much of The Witches of New York has the feel of a first novel in a series. So many characters are introduced (though a few meet a brutal end at the reverend’s hands) that it feels like McKay is setting up a chess board. There’s also a lot more attention paid to world-building than letting the plot race—which explains why this book is nearly 600 pages long. There’s enough episodic action to keep the exposition from slowing the pace too much, but I felt like the book is setting us up for an even longer story. The Witches of New York has a satisfying conclusion, but it leaves unfinished business.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.