Payback’s a Witch
by Lana Harper
October 5, 2021 · Berkley
Contemporary RomanceFantasy/Fairy Tale RomanceLGBTQIARomance
Payback’s a Witch was a fun, spooky, sexy way to kick off my autumnal reading. With enjoyable characters with clear development, a sultry queer romance, a delightfully magical setting, and beautiful prose, there’s lots and lots to like here.
At the outset of the story, Emmy Harlow is returning to her magical hometown of Thistle Grove after a whopping nine-year absence, during which time she has not seen any of her family or childhood friends in person. She is coming back to arbitrate a magical contest that she is duty-bound to perform because of her position as Harlow family heir. Her long time away is due to two main factors: first, her teenage heartbreak at the hands of Gareth Blackmoore, the asshole son of the most powerful magical family in town, and second, a desire to escape a place where she will always feel boxed in as a member of the weakest of the four magical families of Thistle Grove. Soon after her return, she is drawn into a scheme with two of Gareth’s other jilted lovers (who are also witches she grew up with) to serve him some comeuppance. Various magical shenanigans follow.
Emmy tells herself it is only her responsibility as the heir to the house of Harlow that brings her back to town, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is a self-deception. Emmy actually loves Thistle Grove, but she’s afraid to work through all of her negative feelings associated with the magical families and her place in them. If I’m being perfectly honest, I found Emmy as a character to verge slightly on annoying try-hard, but I didn’t mind too much because her character development was truly excellent. Through the course of this book, we get to watch Emmy turn from a very avoidant person who cares a lot about what others think but won’t admit it, and who uses condescension to deflect, into someone who is willing to fully face herself and accept herself in order to move forward with her life and pursue what she really wants. The growth is clear and seems natural and unforced.
Emmy’s relationship with Talia Aramov, one of Gareth’s exes-turned-enemies, was another high point of this book for me. Talia exudes bad bitch energy but also has a softer, more vulnerable side that she slowly reveals to Emmy. From the moment they encounter each other as adults they have truly sizzling chemistry and this is palpable in the prose throughout the book. Here’s a taste:
This early in the evening—though by non-witch time, it was already well after eleven—Talia and I had the dance floor nearly to ourselves. Haunting minor-key sonatas wafted around us as I let her draw me close, and spin up into a lazy, swaying dance. She was one of those aggravating (yet irresistible) people who looked even better up close; skin seemingly poreless, eyeliner perfectly winged, deep plum gloss lending her lips an edible sheen. Or maybe it was just a gloss like any other, and me who wanted to bite her.
The way Talia is described throughout the book is just delightful, with a whole spooky-sexy vampire queen vibe. As an example:
Her heavy waves were pinned up again, and the silk halter top she wore, looped around her neck by a dainty black chain rather than fabric, was the color of pomegranate. For all that I’d been convincing myself that she wasn’t about to seduce me into the nether realms, in the flickering spill of candlelight she was porcelain pale and raven haired as any of the underworld’s sultrier denizens.
Kinda creepy, kinda hot, very into it!
As much as Talia and Emmy are super into each other from the jump, the book does a great job of building up the core tension between them, namely, that Talia loves Thistle Grove and won’t leave and Emmy purports to want to leave again as soon as she can. Even when they are flirting on their first real date, there’s clearly a simmering conflict building as Emmy makes jabs about Thistle Grove’s small-town status and Talia hits back with little jokes about Emmy’s snobbery. I deeply appreciate it when the groundwork for conflict in romance is laid from the jump. Ultimately, the romance between Talia and Emmy feels character-driven and that makes it work very well.
Also, the dialogue is punchy with banter aplenty. As Emmy’s friend and fellow Gareth Blackmoore Heartbreak Victim, Linden, quips,
‘And then you stone-cold made out with her, in Ye Woods of Gloom and Devastation, in front of all the ghoulies and everything?’ Linden marveled, looking awestruck. ‘Girl, that’s metal.’
The cast of supporting characters is compelling, too. All of the magical families are suitably wacky (some in a fun way, some in a more sinister way). A handful of witches of the younger generation are introduced and all of them are quite charming, with the exception of Gareth (more on him later).
The world-building in Payback’s a Witch was strong, with one caveat I’ll get to below. Thistle Grove feels like a real and incredibly cool place, which is important because it is basically a main character in its own right. An atmosphere of delicious mystery pervades the setting, as though something wonderful and delightfully magical happens there every day. Payback’s a Witch has gorgeous prose, and many of the best bits are deployed to describe the town and the surrounding landscape:
Above Hallows Hill, the unlikely little mountain the town huddled up against, a crescent moon hung like a freshly whetted sickle. Waning Crescent, my witch brain whispered, already churning up the spells best cast in this phase. Its silhouette looked like it could carve glass, impossibly perfect and precise, the kind of moon you’d see in a dream. The constellations that surrounded it like a milky spill of jewels were arranged the same as on the other side of the town line but better somehow, more intentional, clear-cut and brilliant as a mosaic set with precious gems.
BRB, I will be driving aimlessly around the environs of Carbondale, IL, until I find Thistle Grove.
I also thought that the magic system is the exact perfect amount of detailed. There is enough information provided about how magic “works” in Thistle Grove that it feels like there are legible in-world rules at play. But at the same time, nothing about the magic is so specific that it raises a bunch of granular questions about consistency. In other words, it’s the right amount of mystical woo-woo and semi-scientific principle in a magic system to satisfy me.
I did have one slight issue with the world-building, and that is the way Chicago is presented and talked about in this book (mostly in the context of Emmy talking about it). To be fair, this may not bother any reader who is not actually intimately familiar with Chicago, but I found all of the hyper-specific name-dropping of real Chicago businesses and places to be jarring and distracting when all of the true action and plot in the book takes place in a fictional, magical town. Part of this is definitely because I couldn’t help but over-analyze the type of person who would list the types of things listed by Emmy as her Chicago favorites (and the answer, to me, was more or less “basic White hipster,” which didn’t not jive with Emmy’s character, but again, distracting.)
With the acknowledgment that this is not likely to be a big sticking point for most readers, I do think that the book would have been better served by allowing Chicago to fade more into the background in terms of details included. I don’t think it’s necessary for the book to include all of the specific Chicago references to “prove” that Emmy’s character has a life built out in Chicago. The core of the book is really about Emmy’s relationship to Thistle Grove; it doesn’t actually matter where she “ran away” to, and the level of detail is more distracting than functional.
Additionally, while most of the characterization was strong, I’m not sure the character of Gareth Blackmoore fully cohered for me. Certainly his interpersonal interactions with Emmy were sufficiently odious. But given that he mostly comes across as a privileged, entitled douchebag, I was a little confused as to how I as the reader was supposed to envision him being charming enough to be romantically involved with Emmy, Linden, and Talia. Part of me wonders if his character remains vague because he’s going to be redeemed in some way in a subsequent series book after being humbled in this one. But regardless, something about him did not fully track for me; he felt more like a caricature of Douchey Guy You Meet In a Bar than a complete character.
Other than the slight world-building quibble I mentioned above and my ambivalent feelings about Gareth’s characterization, I had two other relatively minor critiques of this book.
First, this book uses a lot of jump cuts from chapter to chapter (e.g. we end one chapter in a particular scene or place and start the next chapter multiple days later in a new spot). This is not inherently an issue except sometimes the action in one chapter is cut off earlier than I would have liked. For example, at a few points a chapter ends right before an important conversation is about to take place—for example, right before Emmy is going to tell her mother about her history with Gareth—and then the chapter picks up after the conversation has concluded at a later place and time, sometimes days later. On one hand, this choice in pacing does give the book a very streamlined feel. On the other hand, I actually wanted to hear some of these conversations! RELEASE THE TAPES!
Second, I was somewhat bothered by the conclusion of this book. Keeping things vague to avoid spoilers, Emmy basically gets absolutely everything she wants at the end of the book. Like, literally everything. Even things that are more or less presented as being out of bounds in the beginning of the book. This frustrated me because I thought it undercut the profound character growth in Emmy’s arc. I felt that the point of her journey as presented was that there is inherent value in living in accordance with your values and deepest desires even when you don’t always “win” everything or get everything you want. That is, like, a core lesson of adulthood that I thought was presented in an unusually moving way in this book. And then for her to get every single thing she wants at the last moment feels like we all collectively learned nothing. If she had gotten, like, one less sudden and inexplicable boon during the last chapter, I think I would have been on board.
Overall, this book had many strong elements, with a few minor missteps. I think you pretty much get what you expect in terms of a relatively light, atmospheric, sexy sapphic romance perfect for spooky season. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the depth of Emmy’s character arc and the sheer gorgeousness of the prose, and I enjoyed the dialogue, the secondary characters, and the romance. If there are additional series entries, I will absolutely be reading them.