When I started reading this book it wasn’t very far in before I was thinking to myself “hmm… I’m not sure he’s such a bad guy, ladies” as Vivienne is (accidentally) drunkenly hexing her ex, Rhys. This could be a function of any number of things including my age, my own romantic history, the fact that I waited three months on my library’s hold list to get a copy, or the general state of the world. But it did affect my enjoyment because the thing I noticed by page five didn’t play out on page until about 85% in and kept scratching at the back of my mind. So… my 3.5 rounded up might resonate with you or leave you scratching your head – so fair warning.
The good news for me was that the vodka drunk hexing chapter is a prologue set nine years in the past, so we fast-forward from 19-year-old Vivi to 28-year-old Vivi and that version of her is much more put together, emotionally. She’s a lecturer at the university in town, back to living in her adopted hometown where her aunt and cousin run a witchy shop. Oh, and they’re all witches. The University even has a separate, hidden in plain sight, Witch program. Graves Glen, Georgia secretly houses a bunch of witches, was founded by witches, and has ley lines running through which help power the magic its witch resident use. Every year in October is Founder’s Day which features a huge fall festival and the tourists come to town following a decade long rebrand as a fall getaway by the town’s mayors. Unfortunately, this year’s festival is interrupted by the aforementioned accidental curse when Vivi’s ex and descendent of the town founder, Rhys Penhallow arrives from Wales to recharge the ley lines and attend Founder’s Day in his father’s place. Once Rhys is in town… the hex takes effect and magic begins to go haywire, eventually getting into the lay lines and effecting the entire town. But lifting the curse becomes a problem, and things get serious including a real threat to Rhys’ life.
There is a lot happening in this book, and the good news is that Sterling handles it well and is genuinely funny, writing characters with undeniable chemistry. The relationships between the characters, familial or romantic, all felt very real, as did the lingering hurt of young heartbreak. I struggled with the pacing a bit, there’s a lot of worldbuilding to lay in for both protagonists, their families, and the town itself before you get to Sterling’s version of magic (which I liked). It builds over the course of the first half in a imminently readable way (I devoured this book in one day) but we pay the price in the second half. The book is predominantly set between October 12 and October 31, we spend half the book leading up to October 13, and then the second half with the remaining two weeks, skipping over chunks of time and character development. We get it in passing, in reference to what happened off page, but with characters with such great chemistry who fell for each other intensely nearly a decade ago but broke up after three months on a blow up, and have been back in each other’s lives a matter of weeks… I felt we needed the time to see the new era of their relationship develop. Sterling sold it without, but it could have been so much better with even fifty additional pages (moving this book from 300 to 350, not uncommon in the Romance world).
I’m interested to see what Sterling writes next under this pen name (she’s also Rachel Hawkins) as she continues in this universe.