The Witches of New York
By Ami McKay
(560 pages, historical fiction, 2017, available on Hoopla)
Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York is the perfect antidote to dreary winter days and long, cold nights. Fans of the television series Penny Dreadful will relish this dark historical fantasy with feminist themes, set in Gilded-Age New York City. It’s a suspenseful gothic tale, best savored with a steaming mug of herbal tea and an appreciation for the mystical.
The novel, set in 1880, follows seventeen-year-old Beatrice Dunn, who leaves her rural hometown to seek employment in New York City. A mysterious newspaper ad — Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply — leads Beatrice to Tea & Sympathy, a Manhattan tea house run by proprietresses Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom. Thom and St. Clair sell tea and cakes, yes — but they also serve their (mostly female) customers’ more personal needs through spells, potions, and divination. They must be discreet, as such “dark arts” are largely condemned in a society that mistrusts and persecutes powerful women. As Adelaide and Eleanor help their new assistant Beatrice to understand and harness her own supernatural powers (which include seeing and speaking with the dead), the three women become entangled in a plot that involves kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder — with Beatrice at the center of it all.
This story features all the essential tropes of a 19th century gothic mystery: otherworldly beings (including sprites, ghosts, and demons); a gritty urban setting; alienists, seances, and, of course, a spooky asylum; and even a hint of romance. I especially appreciated the well-developed characters and the theme of sisterhood and cooperation between the titular witches. McKay seamlessly weaves the more fantastical elements of her story into a backdrop of real historical events and people — from the Brooklyn Bridge to the writings of Cotton Mather — and incorporates some principles of herbal medicine. The plot includes violence and murder, but nothing terribly graphic; I’d call it more brooding than scary. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this atmospheric and well-written story about strong women overcoming challenges with the help of a little bit of magic.
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Faithe Miller Lakowicz