Saturday, 10 December 2016

Review: 'The Witches of New York' by Ami McKay

Yes, I keep reading books about witches and yes, I will never stop!! Especially if they keep being this good?! I picked up The Witches of New York largely because of the title and the extremely pretty cover, but had I known how great a writer Ami McKay is I would've picked up one of her books ages ago. As you can probably guess, I loved this book so let's get down to the review so I can explain why. Thanks to Orion Publishing Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/10/2016
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group

The 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?
Witches have become an increasingly poplar topic once again (yaay for witchcraft lovers like me!) and there is a very good reason for it. Women in power/with power have always fascinated authors and those in power, especially when authors, and those in power, were almost all male. Recent explorations of historical witch hunts (such as Stacy Schiff's interesting The Witches: Salem, 1692) have revealed how much of these hunts were motivated by patriarchal fears of female power and how the idea of the witch has continued to haunt women throughout the centuries. Lately popular culture has reclaimed the witch as a feminist symbol, the girl or woman who finds an inner, natural power which makes her strong, stronger than she could imagine. Naturally this comes with its pitfalls, which is why very often "simply" bringing witchcraft into a narrative doesn't work. I'm glad to say that Ami McKay is aware of what witchcraft means and uses its history to the best of her abilities in The Witches of New York.(The clever people over at Flavorwire write a fascinating article about all of this called 'Feminism, Radicalization, and Injustice: The Enduring Power of the Witch Narrative'.)

At the centre of The Witches of New York are three different women, Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice, each touched by magic in their own way but representative of different placed in life as well. Eleanor was born into witchcraft, trained carefully and lovingly and therefore strong and confident in her abilities. Adelaide came to magic through trouble and hardship, still distrustful of the power inside her. Beatrice is young and finds her way to magic partly by pure will and by sheer talent. These different narratives come together to form a book that shows the stories of different women and different lives. Their interactions, the way they learn from each other and how they lean on each other really does form the heart of the novel and gives it much of its power. McKay takes her time with her story, not rushing her characters mindlessly from one corner of New York to the other when there is no point for it. The Witches of New York develops its story slowly, which means it is not necessarily a very high-paced novel, excelling at building up atmosphere and letting the reader soak in it.

McKay's writing throughout the novel is stunning. Whether it's descriptions or dialogue, McKay excels at getting her point across as well as producing beautiful prose. It flows very well, is incredibly readable and always adds to the narrative. Besides that, its use of witchcraft "trivia" is very well researched. Each chapter is preceded by a quote, both from historical works such as Cotton Mather's work or her own creations, such as Eleanor's grimoire (witches' handbook). This not only sets up different narrative strands, it also aids McKay in setting her novel within a historical narrative. As said above, witchcraft comes with a big symbolic burden and not all novels carry this weight as well. McKay did her research and it shows. Whether it's the Suffragettes or the slow rise to prominence of science, McKay's 1880s New York feels alive. Similarly, McKay has a keen attention for the fate of women, both the restrictions of the women in the upper classes and the sheer suffering of the women in the working class.It adds a gravitas to the novel and its story which makes it an interesting and gripping read.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I loved The Witches of New York. It's both a fun and interesting read, using its history well but not letting it overshadow the original story. I adored the different characters and it was a treat to read about so many interesting women in one book. Personally I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction, Fantasy and Women's Writing.

1 comment:

  1. Whoo, I'm glad you loved this book! I did, too (this is motivating me to finish my review ^^;). I didn't really think about the feminist aspects of this story while reading it, but after attending a discussion with the author, I realized just how important stories like these are, especially in today's political climate...