I was disappointed in Laura Bickle’s 2018 contemporary fantasy Witch Creek. To be fair, this is the second book in a series and I haven’t read Nine of Stars. (There are also two prequels to this series.) It’s possible I would appreciate this book more if I knew more of the background.
Since I haven’t read Nine of Stars, I may give one or two mild spoilers for that book without realizing it.
Witch Creek opens with a powerful, shockingly realistic passage in which we see our protagonist, Petra Dee, in the aftermath of a chemo treatment for leukemia. The treatments have robbed her of her vitality. It’s unclear whether they are beating the disease. Petra decides to leave the hospital against medical advice to search for her magical husband Gabriel who has vanished. Modern medicine isn’t going to save Petra, even though she agreed to try it. Her only recourse, it seems, will be magical, and that’s a knife-edge for a writer to walk. The intensity and graphic content of the opening makes the cancer struggle seem real. Will a reader suspend disbelief enough to accept a magical “happy ending?” This reader had some trouble doing that.
Sadly, once Petra leaves the hospital, she interacts with pretty flat characters in a landscape that we never quite inhabit. This is a real disappointment, because the story takes place in Wyoming, at the border of Yellowstone National Park. This setting is theoretically important to the magic element of the story, but it never comes to life. Instead it’s the interiors that get attention; a log mansion, a cutesy house with needlepoint pillows and tchotchkes, a mobile home, and a cave that contains an underground river and an evil mermaid.
The characters who held my interest the most were the almost-villain Owen Rutherford, the mermaid, and a bar-owner called Lev. Owen has abducted Gabriel and is forcing him to explain the magic of the place. He is power-hungry, selfish, confused and guilty. The mermaid is, by every objective standard, evil (she kills humans for sport, for instance — although she does also eat them), but she is smart and perceptive, and her grievance against humans is justified. Lev is a character with a predictably tragic arc, and the most interesting magical character in the bunch. Unfortunately, he’s gone on a journey at the end of this story. If I thought Lev was going to be a regular, I might stick with this series.
On Petra’s side we have an indigenous, wise-cracking social worker/herbalist, Maria, who comes perilously close to being a magical native with her herbology, and Nine, a wolf turned human. The most outstanding feature of Nine is her silver hair. They are both knowledgeable about magic and both loyal to Petra, but they are almost stereotypical, and I would have liked more layering and complexity in them. Petra also has a pet named Sig who, the story tells us, is a coyote, but who behaves exactly like a dog. Sig might be from a long bloodline of coyotes who try to protect the wildland magic from bad humans, but he is not a convincing coyote.
Other characters with the potential for interest include Petra’s alchemist father, who is living with Ahlzeimer’s Disease, and her archaeologist mother.
Despite the amazing setting, with earth and water that almost has a mind of its own, and a rich native tradition, the magic here is mostly European and so are the players. All the movers and shakers are colonials, from the historic villain Lascaris, who settled in the town in the 1860’s, to the human incarnation of the mermaid, who was an Irish singer, and Gabriel, as well as Petra and the Rutherfords. The central magical artifact is called the Tree of Life; Lev is solidly eastern European in origin. In some ways this reminded me of the TV adaptation of Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Texas… and not in good ways.
I want to clarify that the issue of a serious real-world disease being magically cured in a fantasy novel is my issue, and I know that. I think it’s very hard to pull off. Bickle’s resolution is imaginative, but the realistic portrayal of the disease and its aftermath in her opening pages left her with a lot to live up to, and she didn’t quite make it for me. Petra’s resolution feels contrived and predictable (I thought I saw it coming about thirty pages before it happened and I was right). There is an intense, beautifully-realized scene in which she confronts an alchemical green lion, but somehow the solution still felt bland when compared to the power of that opening passage.
I nearly gave this book 2.5 stars. That rating would have reflected the gap between my expectations, based on that vivid, unsentimental opening, and the actual resolutions offered in the story. By any standard of urban fantasy, Witch Creek is not a 2.5-star book. It has an interesting magic system and the plot points are all in place, if somewhat obviously. The lack of a sense of place means it is not “weird west” to me, but I see what the author is trying to do. A rating of 2.5 stars would be downgrading the book because of some powerful writing, and that isn’t fair.
After some thought, I’m giving Witch Creek a solid 3 stars. Bickle can write, and Witch Creek is an entertaining read with clever banter and interesting ideas, and probably more for people who have read the previous works.