February 22, 2018
(+++) SECOND HELPINGS OF WITCHERY
Wildlands No. 2: Witch Creek. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
The Witch’s Kiss No. 2: The Witch’s Tears. By Katharine & Elizabeth Corr. HarperCollins. $9.99.
Laura Bickle’s second Wildlands novel and her fourth featuring geologist Petra Dee – Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde are prequels to the current series – picks up with a real-world scenario as chilling as anything in Bickle’s supernatural environment, with Dee fighting the effects of cancer chemotherapy while confined to a hospital bed. Petra’s metastasizing leukemia is an unusual element of the plot here, and Bickle manages to make some skillful-but-not-overly-obvious parallels between it and the metastasizing otherworldly evil that will be readers’ primary reason for reading Witch Creek. In truth, cancer and chemotherapy are far too real-world frightening to provide the moderated frisson of chill that Bickle wants readers to feel. Yet the cancer is integral to the plot of Witch Creek, because an important element of the scenario of this sequel to Nine of Stars is that the world of the living and that of the dead are closely intermingled, with Petra passing between them – perhaps in part because her advanced cancer means she is nearly simultaneously in both. This is actually the most intriguing element of Witch Creek, which in other ways is far more conventional. It is a quest novel, with Petra searching for her husband-of-convenience, Gabriel Manget, who has become something more – again, partly because he may be able to help her face her mortality. Gabe is a 150-year-old former immortal, now fully human since the object that gave him ongoing life, a tree called the Lunaria, has been destroyed. But it has not quite been destroyed after all – this is one of the many plot points that pick up on earlier material and look ahead to where Wildlands will go next. Gabe is in the clutches of the evil and probably insane Owen Rutherford, a sheriff whose family owns (or at least controls, or at least seems to control) the ranchland where the Lunaria grew, or grows. Rutherford, whose primary confidant is Anna, the ghost of a young girl, is both brutal and unremittingly stupid, which makes his ability to outmaneuver Petra and Gabe hard to swallow. His stupidity is particularly in evidence in Witch Creek in the offhand, unthinking way he frees a devilish mermaid-like creature called Muirenn from her underground imprisonment – without even wondering who imprisoned her in the first place and why, and whether letting her go would be a good idea. Needless to say, it isn’t. Arrayed against the ravenous and revenge-seeking Muirenn and the dimwitted and revenge-seeking Owen are Petra and three others: Petra’s human friend, a healer named Maria; her former-wolf friend, still sometimes seen in lupine form, Nine of Stars; and the coyote Sig. He is in many ways the most interesting character here other than Petra herself, because Sig very clearly has coyote instincts and behaviors and yet shares perceptions and abilities that go beyond them and hint at a reservoir of knowledge that may prove crucial to the human characters. Bickle writes in a matter-of-fact tone that fits the story well, creating a context that makes its many fantasy elements more believable. And Petra’s ongoing battle with leukemia, and her knowledge that even as she seeks answers from the spirit world, she will likely enter it permanently in the near future, raise Witch Creek above what would otherwise be a fairly formulaic story about the fantastic elements that lie just beyond the everyday world of the fictional town of Temperance, Wyoming.
Matters are even more formulaic in The Witch’s Tears, the second book of The Witch’s Kiss trilogy by sister coauthors Katharine and Elizabeth Corr. This is not altogether surprising, since this trilogy is intended for teenagers rather than adults – and draws heavily, although not unthinkingly, on fairy-tale tropes. The first book, The Witch’s Kiss, drew largely on “Sleeping Beauty” and included a sleeping curse, three magical sisters, being raised by people who are not one’s true parents, and – yes – the kiss of true love. Its most notable element, though, was its least imitative: the relationship between protagonist Meredith (Merry), a young witch uncertain of her powers and just coming into their full flowering, and her older and non-magical brother, Leo. The two are not only siblings but also best friends, and Leo in the first book was strong and supportive and eventually proved crucial to the story – while Merry was rather slow on the uptake as she proceeded through a fairly standard quest with the usual finding-yourself elements. The exposition in the first book tended to drag, but the interesting brother-and-sister relationship made reading the novel worthwhile. Unfortunately, that relationship becomes much less intriguing in The Witch’s Tears, whose awkwardness of structure and style therefore becomes more apparent. The second book picks up three months after the ending of the first (which readers really must know in order to make sense of this sequel). Both Merry and Leo are still coping with the events of the first book, and Merry is still trying to learn how to use her magic properly – which means she is now more involved with the coven headed by her grandmother. But the coven mistrusts her and insists that she practice magic only according to the group’s rules and requirements – an obvious red flag for any teenager coming into her own, even in the everyday world. The Witch’s Tears eventually becomes another quest novel, after Merry’s grandmother is kidnapped and the coven decides that Merry will be useless in trying to rescue her. This book also introduces some new characters, with the apparent aim of showing how it is possible to move on beyond loss. One is Ronan, the new love interest for Leo, who has come out as gay; another is Finn, a wizard trying to help his brother and perhaps become Merry’s new love. The Witch’s Tears builds slowly to an action-packed climax and a cliffhanger ending that is so overdone that some readers will feel cheated as well as eager for the forthcoming final book in the trilogy, The Witch’s Blood. But until the late-in-book action, the story tends to meander, and the strong relationship between Merry and Leo that held the first book together shows signs of fraying for no apparent reason, with their disagreements and argumentativeness becoming repetitious and, after a while, simply tiresome. Second books of trilogies are very often the weakest, and certainly The Witch’s Tears has less to offer than its predecessor. The Witch’s Blood is likely, like many other trilogy conclusions, to pull everything together with a bang-up and hopefully satisfying conclusion. But it is a shame that some of the engaging elements that started this sequence were not carried more effectively into its continuation.