My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I recently took a 3-day business trip that afforded me the rare opportunity to read for uninterrupted hours while on airplanes, and I tore through this book. Ami McKay’s style is light and leading, and she builds solid and interesting characters. The focus on friendships, while somewhat overtaken by romance, is a lovely closing note in the final scenes. The book was an enjoyable light read, but left me wanting something with a little more teeth.
Big and small tensions drive the story forward. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice have private concerns and arcs that connect to the two big plot arcs of the story: the threat from the reverend and the tenuous lease of the tea shop. Their private and public struggles (fraught romantic relationships, family, ghosts) epitomize commonly-explored themes and issues in stories about women: the patriarchy, the oppression of female power and autonomy, friendship, knowledge, and empowerment. However, some of the many side plots get the short shrift as we move inexorably toward the completion of the main plot, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and rushed storytelling, even as the pages of worldbuilding lend a lavishness to the tale.
I think McKay missed a lot of opportunities to craft a different kind of villain and show us a different side of Victoria-era New York City. Our main villain is a reverend whose interest in the Salem Witch Trials becomes an obsession that unlocks the serial killer within. Maybe I’m just over serial killer stories, but I thought maybe the forces aligning against our witchy protagonists could be of a political or social nature rather than a religious one, and could have been just as threatening without a religious psychopath and a murder basement. The story takes place at the height of both the Spiritualism movement and the Gilded Age, but both seem a muted backdrop or an emerging force rather than the very prevalent agents of change and social upheaval that they were. Alex Brown’s review of the book on Tor.com rightly points out McKay’s missed opportunities for exploring a less white and privileged side of New York City at this moment in time. The intersection (and schism) of white and African-American suffrage efforts, the varied Victorian attitudes toward lesbian relationships, and the occult practices and traditions of the many different ethnic and immigrant communities living side by side in New York City are all absent.
Is the book enjoyable and full of strong characters and interesting details of a bygone era? Absolutely, yes. Could McKay have dug deeper and tread lesser-explored ground to lend her story subtler teeth instead of blunt edges? Also, yes. Pick this one up if you want a good book, but not if you want a great one.