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?
It’s no secret that I love books about witches so when I saw The Witches of New York I jumped at the chance to review it. I’d heard very good things about Ami McKay’s earlier novels (bestsellers The Birth House and The Virgin Cure) so between that and the intriguing cover with its wonderful tagline, ‘Those averse to magic need not apply’, I couldn’t wait to get reading!
At over five hundred pages The Witches of New York is a weighty novel but I flew through it and unusually for a book of this length, my attention didn’t wander at all – I was absolutely gripped by Ami’s descriptions of New York in 1880 and the beautifully described story of three very different women finding their place in a rapidly changing society had me captivated.
The UK paperback edition from Orion I is just wonderful and I loved the illustrations, stories and ephemera included in it. Adelaide, Eleanor and Beatrice’s story is accompanied by news articles, advertisements, letters, extracts from Eleanor’s Grimoire and more. The inclusion of snippets from the time made the story feel very real and I also enjoyed the stories within the story that are included – especially the legends and fairytale The Princess Who Wished to Be a Witch.
I’m publishing this review on Halloween because what better day to be talking about witches? But I want to stress that this book is not just for Halloween! McKay cleverly weaves social history, medicine, religion, folklore and mystery to create a story that is as much about women’s rights and the prejudices of society as it is about magic and ghosts. By setting her story against the backdrop of the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, Ami highlights the fascination of society at the time with magic and the occult. Through her characters she shows the many variations on the theme and highlights the often shocking treatment of women just because of their gender.
From a Gentleman’s society taking a philosophical and scientific approach to communicating with the spirit world to the female inmates of the local asylum via disabled veterans and prostitutes, urchins, suffragists and church preachers; Ami McKay centers her characters in a vivid and complex world. My favourite parts of the book were those set at the wonderfully named teashop that Eleanor and Adelaide run – Tea and Sympathy and I enjoyed reading about the different types of ‘magic’ worked there be it comfort to the heartbroken, courage or hope or just good company.
With history, mysteries, murder, love, romance and magic; this book has something to offer so many readers and I cannot recommend it highly enough as the perfect read to curl up with this autumn.
The Witches of New York is out now in paperback and ebook formats from Orion.
I’d like to thank the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.
Find out more about Ami Mckay and her writing at: http://amimckay.com/