Ugh, I feel like I’ve been writing so many downer reviews lately and I’m sorry about that. I don’t want to; if I had a choice, I wouldn’t write these at all, but I’m obligated to since I received the book for free from NetGalley, in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
So moving on. I’m going to try to be concise, and I’m going to make it a point to write about the things that I did like. This is Ms. Oakes’s first book, so there are going to be some kinks, but I commend her for having the drive to write an entire novel in the first place. It’s not an easy thing to do.
So… onto the review, I guess.
I recently finished up an ARC of Witchtown, the debut novel of Corey Putnam Oakes, and I have to say that I did not find it very immersive. The story follows Macie and Aubra O’Sullivan, a mother-daughter duo of thieves who infiltrate “havens,” which are like real-world reservations but for witches, and rob them of every penny they have. Macie’s starting to experience some doubts about their lifestyle, but she doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Her mother is a powerful witch (a Natural witch, born with powers, as opposed to a Learned witch, who learns how to use magic) who won’t take “no” for an answer, as she recently found out in their last escapade, where a Very Bad Thing happened to someone that she loved very much.
This is another case of “the premise of the story was good; the execution was not.”
Macie wasn’t fleshed out much; we barely see into her past. The only things that we’re made aware of are the facts that she had a boyfriend in the last town, and things went down terribly; and she has no powers, which has affected her for pretty much her entire life. Also, who is her father? We never find out, but that’s a thing, too. He’s barely mentioned and doesn’t seem to make much of an impact on her character. Aubra is the personification of narcissism and abusive to boot, so she’s a terrible person—not even a likeable villain, which isn’t bad, because you can’t always root for the villain in a story. The rest of the cast, which consists of the members of Witchtown, are forgettable save Talya and Kellen, the only two people that are somewhat fleshed out after being designated Macie’s friends.
My problem with this story is that it wasn’t cohesive. The first three quarters of the book are made up of random subplots that are strung together, like Macie buying some supply depot in the market-place and struggling with an angry poltergeist that haunts it (what was that even about, I don’t understand why this was included in the story), and Macie struggling to hide the fact that she’s Void (she has no powers) from the other townsfolk, and Macie getting magic lessons from Kellan (who refuses to believe that she’s Void,) and, you know, random slice-of-life stuff. Of course, it all comes together in the end, but the links are weak and far too flimsy to make for a good M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist.
The last quarter is when the main plot—let’s steal everything this town has—comes into play. Macie decides that she doesn’t want to do this anymore. She goes to Aubra and demands that they settle down in Witchtown, and Aubra basically laughs her off. Then Aubra gets it in her head to burn the town down and steal the insurance check, so the game changes drastically, and it’s up to Macie to stop her.
The main point of the story did like a backflip at the end. It changed, not completely, but enough to make obsolete the buildup from the first half of the book. And there’s so much weird stuff going on in the story that no one, other than the immediate main characters of Talya, Kellan, the mayor and Macie, acknowledge. Like the swarm of locusts that invades the town, or the depot, which is constantly burning down, or the rowan-laced water.
I’m also kind of annoyed that the summary lied to me. I was promised this cool story about witches and thievery and robbing a town, but the story was actually a coming-of-age, escaping-the-abuse tale. That wouldn’t be bad, if the blurb had been forthright about it. I guess I expected Six of Crows and I got something resembling Matilda.
There are some loose threads at the end of the story: Witchtown is still broke. Though Macie saves it from being burned to the ground, the books are still forged and the town is still running on fumes. I guess that Percy was a big detractor to their welfare, having staged a lot of the problems that were occurring like with the rowan in the water and stuff, but that never is explained. Talya likes some guy in the book whose name I can’t remember because he only crops up once or twice, but he’s still attached to Autumn, another side-character, and there’s no resolution in that. Also, this guy has something about him because Talya, apparently, gets this wonky, distant gaze when she looking into his past (Talya’s power is being able to see people’s secrets, which is a seriously cool power, but is rarely utilized), and that’s never explained. Aubra just vanishes in the end. She leaves behind all her money, but she disappears without a trace. What happened to her? And what was with the poltergeist, Bradley, who haunts the depot? Is he just going to stay there forever, or is his husband going to crop up sometime? They mention Stan like once, and then never again. I’m guessing that Ms. Oakes is writing a sequel or a companion book—I hope she does, because there’s potential for another story there.
My last complaint is about all the deus ex machinas. Lord, the worst one was when Kellan summons the ghost of that old woman who died in the beginning, the only other Natural witch in the town. He literally throws her ashes into this magic trap that Talya makes (speaking of which, how does Talya know how to do these things? She was far more interesting than Macie, but all we ever learn is that she was abandoned in Witchtown by her parents) and starts mumbling in Latin and then boom—there’s a ghost. When asked about how on earth he did that, he just shrugs and says something about making it up as he went along.
Kellan! You summoned a ghost! The ghost was able to choke a living woman! This ghost could touch people! That seems really powerful!
And the explaining away of what happened with Macie. I’ll appreciate that there was buildup, with the moonstones and the weirdness over her lack of power at the beginning, but the buildup was really weak. Also, the whole thing about the moonstones clouding Macie’s memory seemed to be put in the story as an afterthought.
Another thing was that Macie is so afraid of being revealed as a Void witch and being marked and turned into an outcast. Apparently, that happens—Void witches are branded and shunned from both Witchy and human society. But then, Talya is also rumored to be Void, but nothing bad happens to her. She works for the mayor in the archives, I mean, she’s totally fine. She interacts with the other townspeople and other than thinking that she’s a little strange, no one does anything about her. It’s possible that I missed a line where this is explained away—that she’s keeping it a secret, too—but then it’s stated that first of all, Macie knows, and second of all, the mayor’s ex-secretary, Lois, was the one who spread rumors about Talya being Void. So why isn’t there any repercussion to that? Talya is a free woman, for all intents and purposes. Witchtown does nothing to their only supposedly Void witch, which leaves the question of why is Macie so terrified of being found out? They won’t do anything to you, kid.
I did appreciate the worldbuilding. There was a lot of thought put into Witchtown, like the whole concept of being totally independent, eco-friendly, etc. Ms. Oakes lay out the town so that it was easy for the reader to imagine. I think that one thing that I would have appreciated would be a map in the beginning of the book, so that we could kind of see exactly what she had envisioned. There was good LGBT representation; there was a lesbian couple (one of the Elders and the baker, which was kind of funny,) and then the poltergeist and his husband, although… I guess the “bury your gays” trope is subverted because the Elder and the baker are alive and well. And the baker, I think her name is Gayle, makes an impact on the story despite not being as fleshed out as any of the main cast members.
The characterization of witches in the book was interesting, with the whole idea of the caste-systemy style of power in play, with the Learned witches being less sought-after than the Natural witches. Also, the weakness of Learned witches to rowan, and Natural witches to angelica. Also, Macie’s flair for herbology was a good character trait that presented itself naturally, rather than feeling contrived.
Darn. I said I would keep this concise. :’-)
I wish that I could give this book a higher rating, but it really didn’t hold my attention. There were parts of the story that were really good, but it didn’t get interested until the last three chapters. Everything before that felt like fluff, like the kind of stuff that goes between chapters of a romance-y, finding-your-way-through-the-world sort of story. Anyways, my review could be totally different from someone else’s. I do hope the author the best with the release and thank you so much to HMH Books for the free copy of Witchtown.