I got Ami McKay’s latest book, The Witches of New York, in a swag bag from a special sale at Joe Fresh on Queen St. This is a rare book for this blog – one that I didn’t choose for myself nor was it recommended to me by a close friend. By coincidence, it also turned out to be the featured book in Novel Editions’ January Box. If you haven’t heard of it, Novel Editions is an awesome Canadian subscription box for book lovers. Make sure you check out their website and order yours today!
When I first started writing this review it came out pretty negatively since I didn’t like the ending. But I ended up participating in the Novel Editions book club chat about the novel and as I engaged with other readers I realized there was a lot more going on in the book than I initially remembered and I grew to appreciate it a lot more.
This was my first real experience with McKay, although I had heard strong reviews of The Birth House. My overall review is: I enjoyed Witches of New York immensely and couldn’t wait to get on the train so I could jump back into McKay’s world of magic, but I think the characters could have been handled better.
Witches of New York follows three young witches: Beatrice, Adelaide, and Eleanor, in the 1880s as they navigate the complex New York society, which is in conflict between its predominantly conservative, Christian values and the fight for broadening interests including the women’s rights movement and a public fascination with the supernatural epitomized in the real erection of Cleopatra’s needle, an Egyptian obelisk, in the midst of modern day Central Park.
The writing is simple and enjoyable, not overwrought or frilly in any way, making it a quick and easy read. The pace also spurs you on. I sped through the novel in just 5 train rides, but I found the characters are not fully developed and in many ways appear one dimensional. Adelaide is the rough city girl who has seen too much and doesn’t cry at all. Eleanor is the soft, whimsical one who is the most in touch with nature and magic. Beatrice, my least favourite, is a classic Mary Sue — a true beauty (which she is completely unaware of, of course) who is special for some reason and destined to become a witch the likes the world has never seen before. She is also an orphan.
I definitely think it’s lazy character development but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. They’re fun. Your brain knows what is being portrayed and understands right away. Perhaps one of the reasons I’m harsh on the character development of this book is the context I’m reading it in. There are so many plotlines that are just suddenly dropped and mysteries left untold that it is obvious there will be a sequel. Technically, Witches of New York is a sequel to The Virgin Cure, which includes some of Adelaide’s history, so it is highly probable that McKay will fill the details in across a series. I still found it frustrating and difficult to truly love the characters because of the lack of depth.
There were a lot of instances of “tell-not-show” writing throughout the book which I found too quick to brush over a character’s feelings and intentions making them seem flat. For example, Eleanor is wary of a potential love interest for Adelaide we are told and then 15 pages later we are also told he isn’t so bad after all, following their first interaction. The raven is just a raven “so far as the witches know.” Mrs. Dashley has a secret we are openly informed as the characters talk to her about a different matter.
McKay makes up for this with a smorgasbord of different subplots and side characters including the fanatical Pastor Townsend, whose very name made me cringe each time it appeared. Violence was handled in an interesting way where the magic and the women’s lovely tea shop would make you think things are idyllic, only to have someone die by illness, murder, or accident on the next page. The topics of witch hunts, women’s suffrage, birth control, and misogyny are well addressed throughout often appearing as vehicles for subplots but in these moments I felt a real sense of emotional engagement. So much so, sometimes I would be disappointed when a protagonist appeared only because it would take away from learning more about the suffragettes or the occult society. There are also many wonderful snippets from newspapers, letters, and pages from Eleanor’s mother’s grimoire, spliced between chapters which add some dimension to McKay’s wonderfully witchy world.
She also did a great job of breaking many other tropes. The women’s friendship is more important than any of the romantic relationships, and not all of the couples are heterosexual. Not to mention that the women ultimately rescue themselves, no male hero needed. These are great! We definitely need more of this, especially in the supposed “genre fiction” category, and with the opportunity for deep emotional investment across a series of books, I think Witches of New York and whatever novel McKay is cooking up next is worth a read.