I’m a sucker for a cover and an interesting blurb, so I bought this book almost without thinking. Therefore, I haven’t read the prequel novels, however, this is fine as a standalone.
It’s set in 1880-81, and the historical backdrop of this story, which is for women, about women (although for men too, of course, if you enjoy an empowering read), is the transportation and erection (sorry) by men, of the mystical and undeniably phallic Cleopatra’s Needle in Manhattan.
Two hundred years after the witch trials in Salem, two witches, Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair open a tea shop in Manhattan, whose reputation builds a high society clientele, seeking cures, potions, and palmistry. Eleanor and Adelaide keep their secrets and are protected by these women in return. One of my favourite characters, Perdu, a raven, lives with Eleanor. He is not a bird.
Beatrice Dunn is a seventeen-year-old girl, with a dream of adventure and excitement. She makes a special wish, and soon afterwards, sees an advert for a job as an assistant in a Manhattan tea shop. The ad says that “those averse to magic need not apply.” It seems like just the opportunity she has been waiting for and, saying goodbye to her well-wishing aunt, she heads for Manhattan.
Beatrice becomes Eleanor’s apprentice, but her new life with the witches allows newly found powers to emerge. Adelaide, perhaps prematurely, introduces her to Dr. Quinn Brody who is a war veteran, newly arrived from Paris following the death of his father. He has become involved in the association in which his father was a member: The Fraternal Order of the Unknown Philosophers, which seeks to understand those phenomena which are inexplicable. Beatrice is introduced to a device of his, which she appears more than capable of producing results from, thereby drawing unwanted attention to the witches. Still at risk from dogmatic religion, these enlightened, self-assured, intelligent and independent women come under threat.
The differences between men who believe in the mystical, the unexplained and the spiritual, and women who do the same or less, is stark, disturbing and is explored at length. It is subtly done though and doesn’t seek to be divisive; simply to show.
During some musing, Dr. Brody, who is a thoroughly likeable character, wonders
“‘What is the weight of a soul? Where does it go when we die? Are there such things as ghosts? Can they speak to the living? What of spirits, demons, fairies and angels? Can dreams hold portents, visions, foretellings? Are witches real? Does magic exist?’
He thought if he could gain the answers he sought, he might publish them in a short book. It would be no doubt a risky endeavour, but wasn’t that the sort of risk that every scientist had to be willing to take? To profess truth despite the looming spectre of ridicule.”
Meanwhile, the highly esteemed Reverend Townsend has written a sermon, entitled ‘Against Intuition’ in which his train of thought is thus:
“Women often say they have a ‘knowing’, a ‘feeling’, that something is right or wrong. They’ll claim they’ve seen the answer to a great dilemma in a dream. Who are they to claim the gift of prophecy? What force compels them to speak such lies? More often than not their words are merely a ploy to get others to do their bidding. When caught, they say it was nothing but a silly, foolish game. They insist no one got hurt. But this sort of deceit is no laughing matter. It is a terribly crafty tool of women, especially when used upon trusting men – a tool of Satan himself. I say to all gentlemen, do not be fooled by women’s talk of intuition. I say to all women, do not be used by Devils as a mouthpiece for Satan’s foul words. The only special knowledge he’ll afford to you is misery.”
So, in 1880, the risks to a man of wondering and trying to prove such hypotheses included such horrors as ridicule. At the time, although the majority of witchcraft trials were over, the insane asylums were full. The book lists some of the reasons for women being committed and although I’ve seen these before, you’d need to read them to believe them.
This is a thought-provoking book, with an absorbing storyline, and appears well researched. I particularly liked the ‘witchy’ aspects; the family grimoire, the raven, the Dearlies, dreams, herbalism, tarot, palmistry, spirit mediumship etc. There are dark forces at work as well, but these are not related to the actions of the witches, rather those set against them who are willing to take matters into their own hands. There are some great female characters in the book; Beatrice and her Aunt Lydia, Eleanor, Adelaide, Mrs. Dashley and Mrs. Stevens. I liked the Bird Lady, and the ghosts are pretty fun too.
It is interesting to note the sources the author has used in the acknowledgements as well, particularly with regards to the Oz author L. Frank Baum.
All this having been said, I did make relatively slow progress. I did read a few chapters every day: I don’t know why, maybe life just got in the way this week, but it was certainly good enough to keep going back to, and a great read for this time of year.