Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper
In 2021’s effervescent Payback’s a Witch, the stakes are low, hearts are worn on people’s sleeves, and love is the answer. (Note: No hearts are literally outside the body in this book.) Lana Harper, who writes YA fantasy as Lana Popovic, enters the world of adult paranormal romantic comedy with a story of two modern witches who plot to win a magical tournament while navigating the rocky path of their increasing mutual attraction.
A few hundred years ago, four magicians founded the town of Thistle Grove. Three of them, Avramov, Blackmoore, and Thorn, had powerful magic. The fourth, the actual founder of the town, Elias Harlow, was a far weaker magician. Since the founding, the four families have presided over the magical town. Every fifty years they hold an event called the Gauntlet, and the scions of three of the families compete in three contests to determine who will control the town and the magic for the next fifty. For a very long time, the Blackmoores have won every Gauntlet. The Harlows don’t even compete. Instead, they have set themselves up as the town scribes and historians, guardians of the original Grimoire. When the Gauntlet comes around, the first-born Harlow of that generation assumes the magical mantel of Arbiter and judges the contests.
Ten years ago, Gareth Blackmoore broke the heart of teen-aged Emmy Harlow, and Emmy left town. Far from Thistle Grove, her magic faded into nothingness, but she has carved out a successful and happy life for herself in Chicago. Family guilt drags her back to Thistle Grove for the tournament. Homecomings can be awkward enough, but her first night back, at a local bar, Emmy runs into Gareth and a gaggle of his dude-bros—and Gareth doesn’t recognize her.
The next day, she learns that her best friend Linden Thorn, and the necromantic bad-girl Talia Avramov have both been seduced and betrayed by the spoiled, complacent firstborn of the Blackmoore clan. Not only that, all three families are tired of losing to the family, and Talia, at least, suspects cheating. Emmy, as the Arbiter, is forced by the mantel to be impartial during the trials, but there’s no rule saying she can’t help between contests, by researching and planning.
The plot is a mashup of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and any season of Survivor. The contests themselves are well-described and fun but they aren’t very serious or even difficult. All that’s intentional, since the main story of this book is how Emmy and Talia get together, and whether they will stay together. Emmy is thrilled with her budding—if strange—relationship with Talia, until they both crash into an obstacle. Emmy has a life in Chicago. Talia refuses to leave Thistle Grove, the seat of her power.
Emmy has a further distraction. Her magic seems to be coming back, and she’s reminded daily of how much she loves her hometown. But why must she give up everything she’s worked for to have happiness?
Characterization is not deep here. Gareth, for instance, is quickly portrayed as a callow cad, and given no more complication. His mother is arrogant and complacent, basically the hallmarks of the Blackmoore clan. Talia is a bit more layered, but not complex. Two of my favorite characters were supporting roles, and one practically a bit part. I loved Emmy’s grandmother Nona Caro, and the séance scene where Talia calls forth the original Avramov ancestor, Margarita Avramov, was cute and funny.
The first half of the book concentrates on scenes between Talia and Emmy, or Emmy mooning over Talia privately. There’s lots of drinking, eating, and flirting, and all of it was fun. I laughed at hipster Emmy, shocked to learn that her hometown now has a decent coffee shop, or how Talia is aghast to discover that there are fifteen-dollar cocktails in the greater world. This is Book One of a series, THE WITCHES OF THISTLE GROVE, so part of the slow middle is devoted to introducing series characters.
As I said, the stakes are low, so there is little real danger in the trials themselves, which means that once again there can be a bit of humor. In one trial, there is a Jeopardy component.
Harper excels at description. The characters, thoroughly modern women all, speak in the language of Instagram, texts, and hashtags. The prose is breezy. This is a nice way to escape from the troubles of the world for a few hours. We’re heading into summer, and I would say Payback’s a Witch is a lovely beach book. The second book, From Bad to Cursed, was published in May, 2022.