The Language of Spells is a serviceable lite-fantasy story that I breezed through very quickly, but lacks staying power. The main character, Gwen Harper, is from a family that demonstrates magical abilities — hexes, spells, card reading, and certain individual talents manifest themselves in Gwen, her mother, and her great aunt Iris (notably not her sister, Ruby.) When Gwen learns that recently deceased Iris has left her a house in her name, in a small town that her family had lived in but left when she was in her late teens, she’s wary of returning, but does so initially just to take care of affairs.
It turns out, this is one of those towns where everyone knows and “helps” each other, so Gwen immediately is accosted by neighbors not only looking to scope her out, but also by neighbors who had assumed Gwen was going to pick up where Iris left off in providing routine magical services for the townspeople. This is something Gwen is quite reluctant to do, not because she’s unable, but because she’s at odds with her sister over her abilities and is trying not to live that lifestyle.
The book has a few elements it tries to incorporate: first, there’s the exploration of the family dynamic primarily between Gwen, Ruby, and Ruby’s daughter Katie; second there’s a light mystery over someone trying to scare Gwen possibly out of town; third there’s a second-chance love story between Gwen and beau from when she used to live in town, Cam. This isn’t too much for any one book to try to handle, but this particular book is a little undercooked. The sisters’ antagonistic relationship reduces Ruby to an insensitive, patronizing caricature who always just harps on at Gwen not to be so magical. The mystery lacks enough solid misdirects or escalation to be truly suspenseful or thrilling (although there are some creepy moments,) but the whole thing hinges on the principle that Gwen reads this diary Iris left her — which everyone keeps asking her about, so it’s clearly of interest — so slowly that it isn’t until the end of the book that she finds out who the bad guy is. And the love story isn’t terrible, but it’s also just kind of there, and I found the reconnection between Gwen and Cam to be kind of an easy plot contrivance that wasn’t necessarily earned. To be fair, Gwen does have a great moment coming into the final third where she stands up for herself in a way that I wasn’t expecting given her prior pliability when it comes to Cam, and finally there is where I believed that the romance could actually come together because Gwen was acting as more than the cardboard cutout of herself.
I think the success of the book comes down to how much you’re just willing to go with the flow of the story without questioning too much of the detail, and how much you root for Gwen personally. And I did — she’s blandly likeable enough that you get your hackles up when Ruby gives her a hard time, and you want her to just hurry up and figure out who is messing with her so that she can get settled in and move on with her life. Weaved through all of that is the issue of her magic ability, and if you’re looking for true fantasy, this book doesn’t really deliver, because while the book wants you to believe she has legitimate paranormal talents, you only hear of or see them used fewer than five times, and each time she’s really reluctant. So the genre-bending feels more tacked on for the sake of uniqueness than for actual relevance. Let’s put it this way — if there were no magic in the book at all, you could still have a bitchy sister, threatening neighbors in a new town, and a love interest, and with only the most minor of tweaks, the story would be the same. Even a Major Event at the end that utilizes her abilities could still be resolved in a more traditional thriller-esque way without compromising the outcome Gwen’s story. (If anything, what the Event does is set up the sequel, The Secrets of Ghosts, and other than filling space, it’s quite irrelevant to Gwen’s arc.)
I don’t wish I had the time back that I spent reading The Language of Spells, but it’s certainly not a must-read. It will help you pass time in an airport, but so will any number of other frothy reads that still feel more finished.