The crossroads have always been a place of power and magic, a place where humans could go to make bargains. In the late 15th century, though, the nature of those bargains changed, becoming cruel and tricky, often with deadly results for the humans. In Seanan McGuire’s That Ain’t Witchcraft (2019), Annie Price and her incryptid friends must confront the crossroads to help an ice sorcerer (and get back Annie’s magic, which the crossroads are holding as collateral), all the while dodging Leonard, the loyal heir to the leadership of the Covenant of St. George, a deadly organization intent on destroying all the incryptids on earth. Once again, Annie must function without the help of the loyal and wonderful Aeslin Mice.
After Annie and her boyfriend Sam, who is a furi, a furred primate with superhuman strength, a prehensile tail and a protective attitude toward Annie that is supposed to be endearing, vanquish a cornfield monster in Ohio, they, along with Cylie, a jink who can manipulate luck, and Fern, a sylph, head to the east coast, where Cylie has rented a house in New Gravesend, Maine. None of the group seems to think that town name could be a clue. For the first few days — well, few hours, anyway — their sojourn in the rented country house is fine. Then Annie meets James, a troubled twenty-something; the house is burglarized; and during a trip to town Annie comes face to face with her adversary Leonard Cunningham.
James is an ice sorcerer although he didn’t know that. What he does know is that he has a beef with the crossroads, where a friend of his who made a bargain on his behalf disappeared without a trace. The crossroads didn’t keep its part of the bargain, and James got his friend back, and put the crossroads out of business. The reason the crossroads didn’t keep the bargain, while logically supported by the story, makes it seem that the crossroads should never have been able to make the second bargain at all according to their own rules. That’s a big logic-leap that isn’t explained.
This is the third book in Annie’s story, and some things do get resolved, although I was disappointed about a storyline that’s been hanging on through the whole INCRYPTID series. The focus on the crossroads implied that the long-running mystery of Annie’s grandfather might be solved, and it isn’t, except that Annie has new information that might aid her grandmother’s search for Thomas Price.
That Ain’t Witchcraft is a standard entry in this entertaining series. The plot is convoluted and the magical systems are complex, although well explained, even if it seems certain points get explained repeatedly with no added depth. As with the previous two books featuring Annie, I found the beginning a very slow burn, and I got restive reading Annie’s homesickness, and alternately her lectures about various incryptids, over and over. I’ve never understood the strange extended family that is the Healy-Price clan. A family tree would really help — oh, wait, there is a family tree. [Studies it.] Nope, that doesn’t really help me. I know these names but I don’t know these characters and they become an abstraction.
The action routinely slows down so Annie can explain about how certain people are adopted in and how they’re related to the Covenant of St. George and so on. Annie tells us repeatedly, with slightly different language, why the Covenant is bad and why the Price family are rebels, but we already know this.
In the last forty pages, though, the crossroads plot heats up and is exciting. The relationship between Annie and her ghost babysitter Alice deepens but there is a big change coming up, which Mary hints at. Annie hopes one day to bring James, the ice sorcerer, home to the family, but right now it feels very much like James’s inclusion is mainly to create a love triangle.
A novella, “The Measure of a Monster,” featuring Annie’s brother, rounds out the book. Alex, his partner Shelby and their recovering (adopted) incryptid cousin Sarah — did you get all that? — help a community of gorgons in central Ohio. The story provides Alex with some needed information and adds a big change to Alex and Shelby’s relationship. The gorgon community has had a number of children abducted. While the story had magical action, I never could quite suspend disbelief about a colony of gorgons in Ohio. Maybe that’s just me. On the plus side, this story has the Aeslin Mice.
Fans of this series will not be disappointed. For me, That Ain’t Witchcraft was a reminder that I haven’t read any of the Alex adventures yet, and it’s definitely time to.
InCryptid— (2012- ) Publisher: Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night… The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity — and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…