Sunday 26 May 2024

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Witches of New York, Ami McKay (2016)

Welcome back to my long-running Neo-Victorian Voices series, in which I review books set in the nineteenth century but published in the twenty-first. Today, I’m blogging about Ami McKay’s 2016 novel, The Witches of New York, which combines three of my favorite things—the 1800s, NYC, and a little dash of magic. 

Beatrice Dunn arrives in New York in 1880 on the same day as the great obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, which is nearing the end of its long journey to Central Park. Beatrice is seeking employment in a teashop after reading an advertisement that warns, “those averse to magic need not apply.” She already has a keen interest in the occult, but it’s only after touching the city’s Egyptian wonder that she starts to see and interact with spirits, making her of great interest to Adelaide and Eleanor, the teashop’s proprietors, to alienist Dr. Brody, who takes a scientific approach to the supernatural, and to a preacher and a demon, both of whom wish her ill. 

The novel’s best moments are those where Beatrice interacts with ghosts—when she sees a small boy playing around his mother in the teashop, before realizing he’s dead, and when she scribes messages from spirits using Dr. Brody’s scientific instrument—and the portions dealing with the history of New York (e.g., the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island and a terrible hotel fire). I also enjoyed the inclusion of the raven familiar, Perdu, and the newspaper articles, journal entries, and grimoire excerpts that head each chapter, painting a charming picture of McKay’s magical world. 

Less satisfying was how overstuffed the novel felt at times, with some plot lines (e.g., the relationship between Adelaide and her ghost mother, Eleanor’s affair with a married woman, the threat posed by the woman who deformed Adelaide’s face, and the conflict between the demon Malphas and the witches of the novel’s title) feeling unresolved. I went into the novel expecting it to be a standalone, but it became clear early that I was reading setup for future books, and I was unsurprised to learn that a second novel, Half Spent Was the Night, followed in 2018. I also would have loved to better understand the theological underpinnings of McKay’s magic system. The proponents of Christianity in the novel are uniformly terrible, but this is a world where demons roam. Is there a God? And, if so, what does He/She/They think about witchcraft?

Overall, I’d recommend the book to those who enjoy their dark magic on the lighter side and to readers for whom a series is a bonus, rather than detracting from their enjoyment. What novel(s) should I read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want future blog posts delivered straight to your email inbox? Sign up here.

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