Book Review #2: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

I did First 500 blog posts for both Axiom’s End and The Vine Witch, so I won’t repeat too much of what I said about how The Vine Witch starts.

SPOILERS!!!

The Vine Witch is about a witch whose specialty in magic is wine. Before she was cursed and transformed into a toad, she helped her mentor run a vineyard. After she breaks the curse, she finds that the vineyard hasn’t made good wine since she’s been gone, and that it has been sold off to the MC’s new love interest. The mentor has been allowed to stay on as the cook. The MC believes that her ex-fiance is behind her curse and is determined to kill him. She also recognizes that the vineyard has been cursed (like, a LOT) and sets about fixing the vineyard.

As mentioned in my First 500, I genuinely enjoyed the way that The Vine Witch started. And I was well into the second chapter, before I started to get romance-novel vibes. Even though we meet the love-interest earlier in the story, we don’t really notice him (which I like) but here, he’s described thusly:

He snuck a glance at her while he polished the lenses, and she couldn’t help but notice the fine features of his face — the proud brow that tightened in thought, the geometric planes of the cheeks, and jawline taut from firm self-confidence.Excerpt of “The Vine Witch” by Luanne G. Smith

As John Mulaney would say, “Hmmm…gross!” And, sure enough, these two magically end up together without any romantic rivals, aside from the ex-fiance that the MC wants to murder. Now, just to clarify, there’s nothing wrong with romance novels, but I didn’t think that that was what I was downloading. Romance novels are great wish-fulfillment vehicles, and some are written better than others, but generally, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, the attraction is generally superficially-based, and the plot is predictable.

Somewhere in Chapter 3, I could predict the rest of the novel: the MC would work with the love interest to bring life back to the vineyard and fall in love. Love would heal the MC’s heart so that she would decide against murder. I will admit that aside from the dynamic between the prospective lovers, the overall book does not follow the predictable plot devices of a paranormal romance novel.

To be honest, I think it would have been more satisfying for focus to be on unravelling the malignant spells set on the vineyard, rather than the direction the rest of the book went in, but I will say that the plot was more interesting than what I imagined — in some good ways, in some that I didn’t like as much. Okay, where to start. First, the MC does get started on unravelling the malignant spells put on the vineyard, and she has to work around the love-interest because he’s too practical to believe in magic.

Before we can get to far with that, though, the MC’s ex-fiance shows up for a visit and offers to buy the vineyard. The MC hides upstairs so that she can avoid him, but runs into him later, in town. She is overheard threatening to ruin him for cursing her, and then he turns up dead, like, the next day. In the meantime, small animals have been found dead and drained of blood ever since the MC has been gone, so she’s arrested for her ex-fiance’s murder and accused of killing the small animals, which is a part of blood-magic and illegal.

The MC is arrested and put into witch-prison with two interesting cellmates. The love-interest used to be a laywer, so he’s determined to defend her even though he’s a) never been a part of a murder trial and b) didn’t believe in magic until, like, five minutes ago. The MC inadvertently helps one of her cellmates escape, who then helps the MC escape with her other cellmate. The cellmate and the MC go hide at the circus, where the cellmate knows some people.

We run into a psychic and are pretty sure that he put the curse on the MC but don’t know why. The MC doesn’t figure this out, but she steals a crystal from him so that she can place protection on the love-interest. For some reason, nobody has figured out that that ex-fiance’s wife is the one who killed him and is responsible for the dead animals, so the love-interest goes to visit her, and she ties him up and tries to feed him to a demon.

The MC shows up, just in time, and she and the cellmate save the love-interest and kill the demon. The love-interest and the cellmate go out to greet the police while the MC gets the bad witch to confess. The police magically overhear this (literally) and arrest the bad witch. She dies because the magical handcuffs cut off her magic and she’s centuries old. And everyone who is alive is probably going to live happily ever after. Oh, except that the MC’s mentor is (accidentally) responsible for the MC being turned into a toad and the mentor, angry at the carnival psychic poisons him and then, I think, herself. She dies, anyway, maybe from guilt. But not before telling the MC that her parents were snake oil salespeople, except that the snake oil was, like, poison and charms.

Okay, so, what I liked. I LOVE the cellmates, although I think that everyone escaped from prison too easily. I also really dug the circus setting and getting to know one of the cellmates better. I imagine that there either are or will be more books set in this world and can see each of the cellmates getting her own story, and possibly the barkeeper and the bakery owner (who is also a witch). I think the world-building overall was fantastic. I wanted to spend more time there and get to know the people better, and that’s all because of how specific everything in the world was. The circus is a run-away destination for people with magic but few options. The bar is also for magical people, and is on the rough side of town. The baker creates pastries that identify with the people buying them, particularly in regard to their romantic destinies.

I also loved that the MC had her own specific skills that are demonstrated to the reader. I really liked the idea of unravelling the spells put on the vineyards, and I also liked the idea of vine witches being a real thing. And beer witches, too. Hilarious. I half-suspect that this is based on a real thing, and I don’t care either way because I don’t believe in witches, but I’d keep reading about these ones.

What I didn’t like. I didn’t like the mentor and the psychic both dying rather than dealing with the consequences of their actions. Also, I would have wanted the mentor around for another book, even though her dying coincidentally meant that the vineyard was free and clear for the lovebirds. I didn’t mind the surprise of the ex-fiance dying, but I didn’t like that the murderer was SO obvious but the MC never picked up on it, even though she was, generally, pretty smart.

Overall, I liked the aspects of the book that had been focused on more because we’ll probably see them in future books, like some of the characters and settings. I don’t like that the characters we’ll never see again were one-dimensional, and I don’t like all the twists that didn’t need to be there. Similarly to Axiom’s End, it felt like the time period was a convenient excuse to allow the MC a certain level of naivety that the reader doesn’t share, which allowed the author to heavily rely on an overused trope. I also found it really frustrating that the vine witch was really knowledgeable about magic but didn’t know that a jinnie could be set free by giving her fire. I would have liked it better if she’d intentionally helped the jinnie escape.

The witch who kills small animals and people in order to stay young forever is not new, and every one of the scenes where the love-interest is being tortured and then rescued could have been deleted, and the word count put to use in other, more interesting areas. For instance, since we end up at the circus with the man who cursed the MC, why not make him fully responsible for her curse, as revenge for some nasty thing the MC’s parents did to him? Then, he’d have his own motivation to curse her rather than sheer laziness and greed, which made him as one-dimensional as the actual villain.

I will say that the villain’s back story was pretty interesting, but it was all exposition, and therefore, rendered boring. I would much rather have seen that character in her own novel in the same world. Maybe she would have had to fight her own demons as well as the one that she made a deal with. That would have been cool.

Something I’m not sure how I feel about is the involvement of the Catholic church in the story. On the one hand, Christianity in general is responsible for a lot of atrocities and has a historically negative view of witchcraft. It also served as a device that separated the MC into the “good” side of witchcraft with the villain as firmly “bad”, which just takes away dimensionality. On the other hand, I did like the priest and I know that a lot of converts were lured away from paganism with the promise that Christianity was basically paganism + Jesus, so maybe that’s the direction the author intends to go in.

Overall, the characters were interesting, but superficially so. I would love to spend more time in this world and see how it develops. I would like to see the author be less clever, plot-wise, because, honestly, every story has been told. You can only surprise us so far with what happens, but the how and the who are unlimited, so I’d like to see more focus on those aspects of storytelling.

Knowing that this was the author’s first novel and seeing how much creativity and detail she displayed in her world-building, I would definitely read another book from her. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this/these review(s), I’ll probably go look her up.

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