Heat Factor: A case of pining so good, I would have preferred it without the sex scene
Character Chemistry: OMG
Plot: Mika is hired to teach some kid witches witchcraft and finds a family
Overall: I can see why this book was such a hit, but it didn’t hit for me
As I was reading this book, the thing that was top of mind was that it perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 2022 and what was hip in book-world. (Or at least the corners of it that I bop around in.)
- Witches! Witches are so in right now.
- A grumpy, sweater-wearing librarian and a super-sunshine witch
- Twee children, one with murderous tendencies
- Intergenerational trauma solved by a conversation
- Found family
- A nice message about how to be in the world
Before I get into my criticism, let me say that some bits of this book are absolutely delightful. Take, for example, the scene where Mika unpacks her tiny hatchback, and pulls out some suitcases, two cauldrons, several boxes of books, a teapot, a large collection of herbs, a greenhouse, and a koi pond. Gotta agree with the twee child who swears on this one: “That’s some serious Marry Poppins shit.”
More broadly, I thought the characters were well-drawn, with compelling (traumatic) backstories and engaging interactions with each other. In other words: I enjoyed spending time with these people.
My first criticism is about the book as a whole. I generally prefer books that are a little less heavy-handed with the messaging. By the time Mika had reflected on the distinction between people who are kind and people who are nice for the fourth time I was internally screaming into the void that THANKS I GOT IT. This heavy-handedness wore away at a lot of the goodwill that the first half, which is more about being twee and witchy, had built up. If you prefer books with the message right there front and center, this may be less of a dealbreaker for you.
My other criticism is about the romance. In the first half, I completely bought it—Mandanna really successfully writes a good pining dynamic between Mika and Jamie. But once they supposedly started building a connection, I didn’t buy it as much. They spend time and share secrets and continue to lust after one another, but all of it together didn’t add up to chemistry.
Let’s take the (one and only one) sex scene as an example. Mika and Jamie have spent the day doing a trip and sharing their trauma, as one does. They do some kissing in the woods, and now they’re horny! But once they get back to Mika’s room, the sex doesn’t actually do any work to deepen the connection between the characters. They just…do some vanilla foreplay and have some sex. There’s no emotion in the interaction; rather, the pent-up emotion was already released in the earlier forest make-out scene. The sex is detailed enough that it’s explicit, but not detailed enough to be titillating. It just doesn’t quite work, mainly because I’m not sure what work the scene is meant to be doing. (I suspect it’s plopped in there because this is a romance and therefore needs a sex scene, and that’s the worst sort of sex scene there is.)
ALSO! The entire worldbuilding is predicated on the very important plot point that all witches are orphans. And that many witches therefore choose not to have children, because magic is somewhat hereditary, and if a witch gives birth to a witch, she will die shortly thereafter. Mika’s mother was a witch who “happened” to find herself with child (that euphemism is doing a lot of work here) and kicked the bucket when Mika was a baby. As a witch, Mika understands, intimately, the danger of pregnancy. BUT MIKA AND JAMES DO NOT USE PROTECTION WHEN THEY HAVE SEX. There is no discussion of birth control. There is not even the crinkle of a condom wrapper. The more I think about this, the more baffled I am about Mandanna’s choice here. Is “safe sex isn’t sexy” making a comeback? God, I hope not.
I did mostly enjoy reading this book. And if you are really into witches and tweeness and nice messages and don’t really care about how the romance develops as long as the grumpy one smiles at the sunshine in the end, you’ll probably like it.
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