I have to be honest and say here that I read this book solely because I was going to meet Amber Benson face-to-face. One of my friends and fellow alums from UCRPD’s MFA program, Xach Fromson, started a fabulous reading series called Shades & Shadows. S&S brings together genre writers to read from their recently published and forthcoming works. Lovers of horror, sci fi, fantasy, weird, paranormal, and mystery stories get together to celebrate genre writing, in a reading series that truly seems to be one of a kind.
Amber Benson, now friend of the UCRPDMFA program, was going to appear at the grad school residency and at S&S. While I would have preferred to meet her at residency, where you get the opportunity for one-on-one conversations and deeper conversations about craft, I couldn’t attend this time. So, Shades & Shadows it was.
When I started The Witches of Echo Park, I was fair confused. Here’s a writer whose last works were middle grade and Young Adult novels, who is writing an at least New Adult novel here. Yet we open with Eleanora, a character who we aren’t sure whether we’re supposed to care about, yet.
As the novel unfolds, the story turns into equal parts Eleanora and Lyse, old woman dying of cancer and young, fumbling woman trying to find out who and what she is, and what that means in the greater scheme of things. For a time, the prose was too dense, the present-day happenings not interesting enough, because I didn’t know enough about the characters yet to care about them. Around 50% (as I was reading on my Kindle), we hit a steamy sex scene that effectively jump-started my interest. It never faltered completely after that, though I was a little annoyed at the too-convenient romance with a guy who just happens to be a complete gentleman, not wanting the woman to enter into a relationship unless she’s sure she’s serious. Because we all have that sort of resolve and forethought as adults, right?
Still, the book is intriguing, and feels like the first part of an exploration of an ensemble cast. It actually made me more eager to read Benson’s middle grade novels, as I have a feeling she might be like JK Rowling, more comfortable writing in her first chosen genre, still finding her legs in her second.
As far as the Pagan references go, there was a lot of emphasis on spirits and blood-bonds, which to me isn’t the most fascinating thing about magick, but which serves a useful purpose in fiction no doubt. The villains’ motives are religious, it seems, which rings true. Who better to pit against a witch than a priest?
Seeing Amber Benson at Shades & Shadows, and taking an awkward selfie with her because I promised a fellow Buffy fan that I would, was wonderful. Her acting is beautiful, and her stage-voice during the reading was theatric but not overdone, which I appreciated. I think her writing is still developing, but makes me excited for what is to come. I’ll check back in after reading some of her other books, and leave more full impressions then.