The Witches of New York, Ami McKay: Book Review

witches of new york ami mckay book reviewHarper Perennial / Ami McKay
The Witches of New York Book Cover The Witches of New York
Ami McKay
Historical Fiction
Harper Perennial
July 11th 2017

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?

Ami McKay merges the mysterious act of witchcraft, the sparkling city of New York, and a strong feminist argument in her newest novel, The Witches of New York. 

First and foremost, the atmosphere was enchanting. As a reader, one could practically feel the magic infused air of the streets of New York City in the 1880’s. It was evident that the author conducted intensive research to ensure that this novel was embedded with as many details as possible, which really breathed life into the setting and made it that more realistic to the 21st-century reader. The fascinating history lessons peppered throughout never failed to gauge interest as well.

The characters were complex and never dull, which is not an easy feat. Witches—and business partners—Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom were my favorite characters by far. I thought both of them had their own unique past and distinct personality. Eleanor was the one more well-versed in all things witchcraft and seemed to take on a more maternal role within the story. Adelaide, on the other hand, was more of a free spirit and a great deal more rough around the edges. Despite how different they might be from each other, these are two characters that one wouldn’t mind forging a friendship with in real life.

17-year-old Beatrice Dunn acts as Eleanor and Adelaide’s new apprentice since it becomes obvious that she possesses great powers. Beatrice shined as one of the central characters since she offers an “outsider” perspective, being both new to the study of witchcraft and life in the big city. Her wide-eyed innocence and the fact that she seemingly could do no wrong got a bit stale after awhile though. She reminded me of Phoebe Pyncheon from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables in a sense.

One aspect that I really appreciated was the feminist slant that McKay gave her storytelling. She doesn’t overwhelm readers with it, but feminism definitely has a consistent presence. Women had many issues to struggle with in the 19th-century, and McKay uses her characters to highlight the harmful stereotypes as well as restrictions that were placed on women back then—and, if we’re being honest, some of which are still affecting women today. McKay also wandered from the main cast of characters from time-to-time to offer the perspectives of other women in the city, something that contributed to both the ambiance and the overall plot.

This book was well-paced, though it might seem meandering at times. Observing Beatrice becoming acquainted with her newly found gift and learning of all the evils lurking in the city that threatened to harm not only her but every witch out there was enough to maintain my interest for the duration of the story. The climax of the novel was not as shocking or tense as it could have been since it was prematurely revealed in the book’s summary. Though I did truly find this book a delight to read, it also posed to be quite frustrating to me. I did feel like several mysteries cast out by McKay were never resolved or returned to. Whether this was the author’s intention or not, I can’t say I appreciated having several pressing questions unanswered.

Learning about all the components of witchcraft, including how it was perceived by others in the climate of the 19th-century, was simply fascinating. With an abundance of details and a tangible atmosphere, this book truly stands out.

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Alicia LeBoeuf
the authorAlicia LeBoeuf
Contributing Writer
I'm a college student pursuing an English major and Communication minor. I love everything book-related and I'm a passionate writer.