Book Review: “Witches of New York,” by Ami McKay

Happy Thursday, all (not sure if that is a thing; running with it). I am sorry I have been remiss – bookshelf project has been well underway, and work has been getting me down. However, I am very excited to review this next book, because it was the last one my book club read (come check us out on Instagram!) and I absolutely loved it. Our theme for this book was Women Supporting Women, and Ami McKay can sure write a book of ladies giving their fellow lady a leg up. So without further ado…

From the Publisher:

In the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, comes a new novel from historical fiction maven Ami McKay that transports readers to the heart of Victorian New York, where three witches practice their craft—to the delight of some—but at their own peril.

Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply.

New York in the spring of 1880 is a place alive with wonder and curiosity. Determined to learn the truth about the world, its residents enthusiastically engage in both scientific experimentation and spiritualist pursuits. Séances are the entertainment of choice in exclusive social circles, and many enterprising women—some possessed of true intuitive powers, and some gifted with the art of performance—find work as mediums.

Enter Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair. At their humble teashop, Tea and Sympathy, they provide a place for whispered confessions, secret cures, and spiritual assignations for a select society of ladies, who speak the right words and ask the right questions. But the profile of Tea and Sympathy is about to change with the fortuitous arrival of Beatrice Dunn.

When seventeen-year-old Beatrice leaves the safety of her village to answer an ad that reads “Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply,” she has little inclination of what the job will demand of her. Beatrice doesn’t know it yet, but she is no ordinary small-town girl; she has great spiritual gifts—ones that will serve as her greatest asset and also place her in grave danger. Under the tutelage of Adelaide and Eleanor, Beatrice comes to harness many of her powers, but not even they can prepare her for the evils lurking in the darkest corners of the city or the courage it will take to face them.


What I Loved:

  • The world / setting. In The Witches of New York, the Gilded Age of New York City is in full force, replete with fancy hotels and fashionable ladies drinking tea, but also extreme poverty, children being sold, and women of “questionable morals” being killed without much notice. The city is on the brink: it is filled with wonder and accepting new things, while old ways still cling to the past and present a real threat to the future. McKay brings in the women’s asylum and the installment of the Egyptian obelisk for historical context, and it really works.
  • The witchery. Here is a book that treats witchcraft as different than just raw power like most fantasy books, but as more than just a nebulous belief as many more “realistic” books portray. There is realy magic here, but you actually work for it. There is the making of tinctures, the focusing of will, and the power of belief.

“What does it take to be a witch?” Eleanor took a pause from scrubbing the pot’s lid as she considered the question. “Curiosity, attention, tenacity, courage. An unshakable belief in things unseen.”

  • Women supporting women: As the theme for my book club, I would be remiss in discussing how well Witches stuck to the theme. The three main characters, Aldelaide, Beatrice, and Eleanor, are all extremely supportive of one another and the women that come into their circle through their store Tea and Comfort. While the book doesn’t shy away from nasty feelings that we all feel sometimes (anger, jealousy), the women don’t let that get in the way of the core fact that all women should support other women. Eleanor and Adelaide set about guiding Beatrice, the new witch in their midst, by teaching her and offering her an opportunity to be an independent person. It is an example we should strive to live up to in our dealings with the women in our orbit.

What Worked Less Well

  • The pacing. To be honest, I didn’t want to put a “less well” section for this book, because extolling its virtues is all I really want to do. However, there was minor flaws that may make other readers pause that I want to address. This book has a small pacing issue – the beginning third or so is slow. The characters are introduced in their own sections / chapters, and it makes it hard to read and keep up until the threads start coming together. It makes the second half all the more valuable, but important to note while getting over the first hump.
  • The polarity. While I am not a fan of Catholicism in general (sorry), this book does push the envelope with starkly contrasting Christians with the witches, and it is very unsavory. There is not a single Christian practitioner that is portrayed as being anything other than an evil soul and witch burner. I don’t know enough about the historical context to say if that is how most churches felt during the Gilded Age, I think that there could have been a little more nuance in personal beliefs. However, this didn’t really detract from my enjoyment, because my personal experiences with christianity have not been positive either.

Conclusion

I would recommend this book to basically anyone interested in the occult, novels with strong, independent women, Gilded Age New York City, or people who can use a little bit of mind opening themselves. Four out of five waves! I can’t wait to read the novella sequel, Half Spent was the Night.

As a friendly reminder, if you want to buy a copy of this really spectacular book, support your local bookstore and buy from this website. Let’s support each other in these rough times!

Favorite quote:

“She’d always adored autumn storms, from the quiet that came before the rain, when the birds and bugs went silent, to the raucous cracks and grumbles that echoed between the clouds, rife with the possibility of goblins and ghosts.”

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