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Monday, July 11, 2011

Barbara Ashford: "Spellcast"

Author: Barbara Ashford
Title: Spellcast (Romantic Fantasy)
Ratings: V2; S4; H3
Publisher: Daw, 2011

     This novel takes place in the modern-day world, with no vampires, shifters, or demons, but it does have a supernatural aspect, which I can't explain fully without spoiling the suspense. As the story opens, Maggie Graham's life is falling apart at a rapid pace. She has just climbed into a hot bath to soothe the pain of being laid off from her job, when  the ceiling in her Brooklyn apartment literally falls in on her. With few options and not much money, Maggie decides to get in her car and drive somewhere...anywhere. She winds up in Dale, Vermont (the neighboring town is called Hill), where she spots a building that is unaccountably familiar to her.  That building is a barn that houses the Crossroads Theatre. At first, Maggie is determined to get a room for the night in the local hotel and leave for greener pastures the next day, but she gets talked into auditioning for the upcoming summer stock program at the Crossroads.

     In her younger years, Maggie did some acting in summer stock, but she turned her back on the theater because it brought back too many painful memories of her father, a wannabe actor and dreamer who deserted Maggie and her mother when Maggie was a child. When the Crossroads director (Rowan Mackenzie) casts Maggie in relatively minor roles, she is a bit disappointed because she has more theater experience than any of the other prospective actors. But she is feeling so good about being back onstage again, that she decides to give it a go. Rowan is a handsome and mysterious man with a mellifluous voice and an electrifying manner.  Here is Maggie as she listens to Rowan speak to the actors for the first time:

     "Soft and intimate, as if he were speaking only to  you, yet each word carried clearly. He augmented its power by allowing his gaze to roam slowly across the front rows, ensuring that each person felt embraced by his welcome....Forget about directing. He should have been a therapist. Or a hypnotist. Or a snake charmer....'Svengali,' I whispered." (p. 28)

     The staff members who run the theater are all colorful characters. Most of them have "real" jobs in town and work at the theater on the side, but their dedication to the Crossroads borders on fanatical. As the days go by, Maggie develops a relationship of sorts with Rowan—not a romantic relationship (at least, not at first), but an almost adversarial one, particularly when he tries to force her to come to terms with her unsettled life and she lashes out at his aloofness. Their developing relationship is at the heart of the story.

     We soon figure out that there are secrets at the Crossroads. Helen, the owner of the hotel, brushes her hand across each guest's door each night, resulting in sweet dreams for everyone.  Rowen seems to have an almost magical ability to pull a great performance from even the most recalcitrant, untalented actor. The staff members are overly protective of Rowan's privacy and are constantly exchanging long looks—always a giveaway that something weird is going on. The crowning touch is a really spooky incident that occurs on Midsummer's night. Maggie, being a smart and curious modern woman, is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, even when it turns out that the secrets are closely connected with her own painful past.

     The themes for the book include the power of love, the transformative powers of the theater, the peace that comes with forgiveness, and the importance of knowing when to persist and when to let go.  Two of the plays that the Crossroads performs are Brigadoon and Carousel, both of which reinforce the themes of love and loss.

     This is truly an emotional journey—both for the characters and for the reader. All of the characters are well developed, even if a few of them verge on the stereotypical (e.g, an over-the-top gay lingerie shop owner and his oh-so-conservative lawyer partner). For me, the only bumps in the road were Rowan's journal entries, which twice interrupted Maggie's first-person narrative. Those seemed to come out of nowhere and did little to advance the story line. Otherwise, this is a well-told romantic fantasy that is full of suspense, passion, and pathos and rich in theatrical allusions. Ashford obviously has a deep love for the theater. 

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from chapter 1.

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