Published by William Morrow
Any time a book comes across my path for review dealing with witches, I have to admit to a certain sense of trepidation before I even crack the cover. As a pagan, I almost always take a deep breath and prepare for some mishandling of the subject matter that’ll set my teeth on edge, even when the writer has the best of intentions. Add in the fact that this was the third book in a series of which I hadn’t read the first two, and I was feeling … exceedingly cautious toward James Reese’s The Witchery (and had a few moments where I cursed Johnny Butane and his sly ways).
When I received the book from James, I took a look at his website to get some history on the series and the author, and my curiosity was more than a little piqued. The heroine of the books is Herculine, a French hermaphrodite who was raised in a convent until the day she was rescued by Sebastiana D’Azur, a witch and her mentor. I call Herculine a heroine despite her double sex because Reese writes her with a woman’s sensibilities, even when she’s dressed as a man.
The Witchery begins with the amazing line “I died by fire in the fall of ’46 … 1846 that is” and proceeds to describe in rich and descriptive language Herculine’s blazing demise in a first-person narrative. How is this possible? Herculine herself narrates the entire tale from within the quickly cooling body of a recently dead plague victim aboard a ship heading we know not where. But fear not, the story still holds plenty of surprises.
From death by flame Herculine backtracks to many years before and her nearly hermetic existence in St. Augustine, Florida, and how she received a letter from her sister-witch Sebastiana, urging her to take a ship to Havana and to meet a mysterious monk named Queverdo Brú. In hopes of seeing her friend again, Herculine books passage aboard the Espérance, dressed as a man named Henry, where she meets the gorgeous young sailor Calixto. The two form a bond of sorts when Calixto offers some small kindnesses to the passenger the other sailors disdain as being something of a useless scholar.
The friendship deepens aboard the Atheé, where Cal encounters an old enemy with a bent for torturing the boy. Unable to stand by and watch the abuse, with something of a budding love for Cal, Herculine interferes and ends up killing his tormentor. Unfortunately, she does so by using talents of a supernatural nature in full view of the young man. In the rush to cover the murder and dock in Havana, Herculine (as Henry) manages to put off Cal’s questions but promises to tell him everything. This is easier said than done as everything for Herculine encompasses some rather interesting truths.
Once in Havana, having snuck off the ship to avoid an official inquiry, the two separate, and Herculine promises to meet Cal the next day at a specific place and time with her explanations. However, due to a rather unorthodox visit from some of the monk’s emissaries in the middle of the night, Herculine misses the appointment; and Cal takes back to the sea for six more months. While she waits for his return, Herculine decides to humor Brú, the alchemist monk, in the hopes of being reunited with Sebastiana. In reality, though she lives beneath his roof, the two spend very little time together. Most of Herculine’s time is spent reading in one location or another, studying alchemy in an attempt to understand what it is Brú wants from her, which is unclear but surely nefarious given his behavior.
Reese’s characters are wonderful. Herculine is a heroine I was quite willing to follow anywhere, which is good considering how far afield her travels take us. The secondary characters are all interesting as well with enough quirks and nuances to make them walk and talk. Brú is the only character who remains unreachable, and given the role he plays, this is understandable. What is really remarkable is the backdrop, the stage upon which Reese sets these characters to act out their plays. I can see, however, that this is not going to be a book or a series, I would imagine, for everyone. Reese’s style is extremely rich, textured, and vivid – painting an ornate picture of times and places gone before. It’s evident a lot of research went into the writing of this. But his style is reminiscent of an older age, of writers like Joyce or Hemingway. It’s a carefully crafted style that I think might come across as too heavy or too highly wrought for some people. That style, in combination with the at times over-abundance of factual information, tended to momentarily bog down the story here and there. Still, the plot, the characters, and the environs in which they move were enough to pull me through the boggy patches. And the hinted at history of the previous books made me very, very curious to read the other two as this seemed like a solid wrap-up to what was probably an incredibly interesting series.
At the very end I was slightly let down, but I think I might not have felt that way if I had started at the beginning, which I recommend you do. After all, the book ends exactly as it begins – bar a few facts you’re not privy to at the very start – so don’t expect any big twist; this isn’t Hollywood. And I have to say that despite all my misgivings, the witchy aspect of things is handled ever so much better than almost any other book on the subject I’ve read. So on that score I was very pleased. All in all, if you’re a fan of a more literary style of writing and willing to stretch your brain a bit, you’ll probably enjoy Reese’s books a good deal.
3 out of 5
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