A grumpy heroine getting a happy ending.
Plot: Picking up midway through the previous book, this time from Clem’s perspective, a witch hunter has arrived, quite dramatically, in the small town of St. Claire. Much like just about everything else, Clem has decided to take on the job of getting the witch hunter out of town, and without help. This is par for the course, as Clem has been the problem solver for the whole family her entire life, but she is also drowning in resentment over it. Incidentally, our witch hunter is also drowning in resentment. Gavin is part of a long unbroken chain of witch hunters in the family, but frankly, his grandfather’s decision to abandon the order seems less and less outrageous. A battle between witches and hunters is inevitable, and where is the stage set but in the local farms, bakeries, and over a cup of coffee with the town’s gossipy retirees. Shenanigans ensue.
I tried writing this review with a mind to the kind of reader that would like it but it instead turned into a huge rant that doesn’t even cover everything that bothered me, so proceed with caution.
There was something that bugged me in the first book in the series and in this book has just gotten distracting. When characters are described, their race is mentioned only when they are not white. This is true for significant characters as well as one offs. This White As Default type of character description is a common problem in books written by white authors and it is part of the larger tapestry of othering people of colour. To be clear, I don’t think Aguirre is deliberately doing this. She is clearly trying hard to write stories that not only include people of colour but do so in a positive way that doesn’t rely on stereotypes. But this is a persistent issue across multiple books, where the difference in how white people and people of colour are described is jarringly different. Take this sentence: “Kerry Quarles was an angular woman with blond hair and sharp features while Priya Banik was softly rounded, her bronze skin a glowing complement to her river of silken black hair.” This is how literally all characters are described – white characters are without race, and non-white characters are always identified by race. This is particularly grating because the core of this book is clearly a response by Aguirre to work through her thoughts and feelings about the last couple of years in racial reckoning, with oblique references to the murder of Black people in broad daylight. Unfortunately, this reads more like a white person’s attempt at processing how bad other white people are rather than an exploration of how bigotry can infuse even the lives of people who think they’re not bigots because they’re not out hunting people who are different. This comes up over and over throughout the book.
A much smaller issue I had with this book’s description is just how much there is of it and how little it matters. A paragraph describing a fire hall that looks like any one, or a generic living room, or a farm that looks just like the ones on TV (literally). Descriptions of places that have no bearing on the story and are not particularly meaningful or unique. I could cut 15% of the book and lose nothing. It means the momentum in the first half which is already quite slow is slowed down even more. Maybe if we spent less time describing generic environments, we could understand Clem better, because she seemed to be living on a totally different planet than the Stars Hollow-esque, charming, slow community. Her behaviour feel driven by plot rather than by characterization. Her moods and stress seem at conflict with the actual world around her. She’s beyond stressed about how much work she has despite admitting that she generally only really works 30 hours a week (which includes time thinking about social media?) and her cousin deals with all the tedious administrative aspects of business ownership. I weep for you, Clem. Her internal monologue is relentlessly dark and she’s known for never holding her punches but she has no issue at all being light and flirty with Gavin, and that light and flirty version is supposed to be how she really is, despite it being in direct opposition to what we know is going on in her head. And it kind of grinds my gears that for the bitch to get her happy ending, she needs to be bright and happy and flirty. That’s not what I came here for.
The momentum does scale up in the second half of the book and the stakes are higher, but it really just relies on the characters coming to realize stuff that was painfully obvious from the start of the book. I think the book would have been much stronger if Gavin had positive feelings for the order too. Friendships, mentors, or even buying into the Order’s bullshit in more than a general “I grew up with this and am scared to change” way. Out here in the real world, the reason people end up in racist gangs and cults are specifically because of their strategy of recruiting kids who have nothing and showing them a shred of kindness. The Order is a strawman version of the same thing, so it’s just not as satisfying to see Gavin turn on them since he lost literally nothing in the process. Clem also didn’t seem to learn very much about being vulnerable and asking for help, spending the bulk of the book resenting other characters for “taking advantage” of Clem always insisting on doing everything herself. She wasn’t asked to take Gavin on. She volunteered and told everyone to butt out. She wasn’t forced to plan a party that Danica wanted to have, she just did everything while being mad about it. She even resents Danica for coming into work on time. Clem isn’t the one in charge because people put her in that position, she put herself in that position and then resented others for not fighting her on it. She doesn’t make her needs known and resents people for not reading her mind. That’s not being a saying-it-like-it-is abrasive bitch, that’s just being an asshole and blaming your self-made unhappiness on other people.
I will give Aguirre this. It’s not often that an author can actually surprise me with a twist, especially when they pepper in hints, but she got me good with this one. There is also an excellent geriatric love triangle.