With the coming of Halloween, thoughts turn to stories of witches and goblins.
Secondhand Spirits is the first book in the new paperback Witchcraft Mystery Series, a concoction by Juliet Blackwell set in San Francisco. It is all about supernatural powers, witches, ghosts and demons and their conflict with the human world.
The protagonist is a young witch named Lily Ivory, who is ambivalent about her power. She is torn between who she is (with an apparent lingering hangup about an undisclosed past conflict with her shadowy witch father) and her desire to fit in whatever passes for a normal human world.
Lily has come to San Francisco to hide out from witchcraft, or so she thought, and to “find herself” as a vendor of vintage clothes and accessories in her new store, Aunt Cora’s Closet. Conveniently, she is independently solvent, so she does not need to work for a living.
The kick off of the story is Lily’s acquisition of antique wedding dresses and other vintage clothes from an old woman who lives alone in a mysterious crumbling mansion. More questions than answers swirl through the plot along with Lily’s magic brews for casting spells. Perhaps this is an intentional device for unfinished storylines to be picked up in later books.
Witches, Brews, Spells, Friends, Familiars and Demons
Apparently this book is the first of a cozy mystery series, so the reader is introduced not only to Lily but her menagerie of quirky friends and acquaintances, some witches, some not. Allowing herself the luxury of friends is part of Lily’s character theme in the book. That she forms some friendships suggests these same characters will appear in future installments of the series.
There are some potential male romantic interests, left unresolved as well in this first story. All of course are predictably very attractive and predictably attracted in turn to predictably attractive Lily; one is himself a witch with powers far exceeding Lily’s, leaving the reader to wonder if he is one of the “good guys” or the “bad guys.” He and other events that cross her path do not permit her to abandon the active practice of her powers.
It is also this gorgeous male witch who adds another character to the cast, in the form of a gift of a “familiar” to Lily named Oscar, a shapeshifting demon/potbellied pig.(Enter Harry Potter-esq aspects to the story.)
Lily does not seem to want or trust Oscar and yet she keeps him and quickly grows attached, for reasons unexplained to the reader. After all, if she is a powerful witch in her own right why can she not just refuse this unwanted familiar, especially since she suspects him to be a spy for the master witch?
The question is not really answered. Perhaps it is part of her inner conflict. And Oscar is an engaging fellow. The book’s entertainment value would suffer without him, atthough he seems to be more of a prop than a necessary element to the plot. Whether or not Lily needs him, the book does.
A Plot of Mystery and Magic
The plot centers on the disappearance of a young girl, likely snatched by a powerful demon who apparently belongs in Lily’s home state of Texas rather than San Francisco. This is a vague contradictory plot detail. At first it seems the demon could be a new arrival with Lily; yet it later proves differently, another anomaly not clearly explained. Such confusing points take away from a story line that has potential.
Lily’s attempts, with the help of her friends, to figure out how to get the missing girl back, if possible, form the main thread of the plot. While some aspects of the story are predictable, Ms. Blackwell is successful at springing a surprise ending of the who-dun-it variety. In this respect, at least, the story is well-done.
The book’s best strength lies in its breezy, cozy storytelling style and ability to draw the reader into Lily’s world of San Francisco’s ambiance and characters. Her “recipe book” and brews are interesting.
Lily and her powers are believable, even if some of her decisions and the events around her are less so. Oscar is also engaging and humorous.
In short, despite its literary flaws this book is a fun read.
A Lack of Originality in Premise
What is less engaging about this book is its nagging déjà vu aspect to other books along a similar premise. An obvious example is the Vintage Magic Mystery Series. In this series, Annette Blair’s A Veiled Deception introduces a paranormally gifted young woman who opens her own vintage clothing shop in a coastal town – just on the east coast instead of the west coast.
In A Veiled Deception, Ms. Blair’s protagonist does not cast spells with witch’s brew but she does see ghosts. And vintage clothes talk to her. Instead of a grandmother witch-mentor like Lily, Ms. Blair’s character has an aunt with similar powers. Still these are differences without substance. The similarities are more marked than the differences between the two books. A “haunted” wedding dress also figures prominently in both books.
Both these series have look-alike themes and props. Both are finding success because their premise provides the basis for a fun read in a New Age of wishful thinking that such powers just maybe could be real.
Secondhand Spirits would be a better book with more originality. The series has potential and one may hope that its sequels will step up to the challenge of developing its own legs to stand on.
Secondhand Spirits an Enjoyable Read
Real or not, in the final analysis, Secondhand Spirits entertains. And it will sell – without the need for Lily to cast a spell.