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Wednesday, January 1, 2014


Author:  Nora Roberts
Plot Type:  Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)     
Ratings:  Violence-3; Sensuality-3-4; Humor-2 
Publisher and Titles:  Berkley
          Dark Witch (11/2013)
          Shadow Spell (5/2014)
          Blood Magick (11/2014) (FINAL) 

     This post was revised and updated on 12/8/14 to include a review of  Blood Magick, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1.
             NOVEL 3:  Blood Magick               
     In the closing novel of this trilogy, we get the resolution of the tumultuous romance between Branna O'Dwyer and Finbar (Fin) Burke, who have been in love since they were teenagers but have been driven apart by Fin's blood relationship with the evil sorcerer, Cabhan. Cabhan's mark appeared on Fin's shoulder at the moment he and Branna consummated their relationship many years ago. The main story line follows their romance as they finally to live in the moment and worry about Fin's dark heritage later. Here, Branna muses about their new relationship: "For tonight, if it could only be tonight, she would give herself a gift. She would only feel. She would open herself, heart, body, mind, and feel what she'd struggled against for so long. Tomorrow, if need be, she'd tell herself it was only the physical, only a way to relieve the tension and strain between them for the greater good. But tonight, she embraced the truth. She loved. Had always loved, would always love."

     The over-arching series conflict is resolved in this novel during the final showdown with the demon-possessed Cabhan. Throughout the book, Cabhan slinks around the forest either in human or wolf form spying on the three couples or confronting them with taunts and threats or making low-level attacks on them, usually when they are alone or in pairs. Meanwhile, Branna and Fin spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what spell and potion will kill both the demon and Cabhan once and for all. They also have to figure out how to deal with the time shifts that have so far prevented Sorcha's long-dead three children (the original three witches) from joining up with the current three witches to stand against Cabhan. Here, Fin discusses the situation with Branna, "Time's the problem…The shifts…We have to make the times meet. Our time or theirs, but the same. It's interesting, an interesting puzzle to solve." Once again, there are some dream-walking sequences as well as a few day-time visits from Sorcha's children and from Sorcha herself. The story line plays out in a mostly predictable way. The only twist in the plot is related to Fin's genetic heritage, and it's one that I didn't see coming.

     The story line is very similar to the previous books: scenes of witchy stuff, food prep and consumption, romance, good-natured group dialogue—and then repeat the sequence all the way up to the climactic ending. There are many, many magical chants, ingredient lists for both spells and suppers, and feel-good family scenes. When the big closing battle scene rolls around, it turns out to be relatively brief and a bit too neat—not nearly as big a pay-off as I had expected. But if you are a Nora Roberts fan, you'll probably love the book, no matter what. If you haven't read the first two books, I recommend that you read them first because this one relies heavily on past events and isn't meant to be read as a stand-alone.

     Click HERE to go to the Blood Magick page on where you can click on the cover art or audio icon at top left and read or listen to an excerpt. 

      This mythology is based on an incident that is described in depth in the first two chapters of Dark Witch. Eight hundred years ago in the forests of Ireland, a powerful dark witch named Sorcha and her three children are threatened by an evil male witch named Cabhan who wants to mate with Sorcha (and, perhaps, her daughters) and steal their power.   

     In order to save her children, Sorcha creates protective copper amulets for them, each with the image of an animal that will be that child's protector:  Teagan will be protected by Alastar, a horse; Eamon will be protected by Roiberd, a hawk; and Brannaugh would be protected by Kathel, a hound. As Sorcha hands them the amulets, she tells them, "These [amulets] are your signs and your shields. They protect you. You must keep them with you always….[Cabhan] cannot touch what you are if you have your shield, if you believe its power, believe in mine and your own. One day you will pass this to one who comes from you. You'll know which. You'll tell your children the story…and give the gift." (p. 15)

     After placing an invisibility spell on her children, Sorcha sends them off to safety. Before they leave, Sorcha prophesies, "You are the Dark Witch, one by three. This is my gift, and my curse. Each of you is strong, and stronger together. One day you'll return." (p. 34) That night, she pretends to succumb to Cabhan, but poisons him instead. Sorcha then dies, believing that she has killed Cabhan. Unfortunately, Cabhan survives and grows stronger and darker over the centuries. 

     Beginning with chapter three of Dark Witch, the time period switches to 21st century Ireland, where a young American woman, Iona Sheen, has come to introduce herself to her distant cousins, Branna and Connor O'Dwyer. All three are descendants of Sorcha's childrenthe three of Sorcha's prophecy. The two Irish cousins have been practicing witchcraft all their lives, but Iona has had only a few brief lessons from her grandmother. It was Iona's grandmother who gave her a copper amulet with an engraving of a horse on it and encouraged her trip to Ireland. Now that the three are together for the first time, Sorcha's prophecy begins to come true. The series will tell the stories of the three cousins and their three good friends as they find their mates and try to destroy Cabhan once and for all. Here is a list of the future couples:

   > Book 1: Iona Sheen (Branna and Connor's American cousin) and Boyle McGrath (non-magical owner of a horse tourist-centered stable of riding horses and falcons)
   > Book 2: Connor O'Dwyer (Branna's brother) and Meara Quinn (Branna's non-magical best friend)  
   > Book 3: Branna O'Dwyer (Connor's sister) and Finbar (Fin) Burke (Boyle's partner; a descendant of Cabhan)
Thomas Kinkade painting

     As I read the first book, I felt as if I was inside a kitschy, sentimental Thomas Kinkade painting...but with witches. The Kinkade comparison even plays into the series theme of light winning over darkness, since Kinkade proclaimed himself to be the "painter of light." The bland, underdeveloped characters in the series are highly romanticized in that they are all wise, generous, kind, courageous, loyal...and any other positive personality trait you can come up with, while the one-note villain is dark and evil to the core. The setting comes directly from any cozy mystery you have every read (or from a Kinkade painting): a lovely, picturesque village filled with quaint cottages (with light shining from their windows) and surrounded by verdant meadows and lush forests. The locals speak in a charming brogue and dispense wisdom to one another even if they are sometimes unable to live their own lives wisely. In other words, it's a novelistic soap opera—a complete fantasy world that never rings true to life.

     Many reviewers have criticized the series as being a retread of Roberts' SEVEN SISTERS TRILOGY, but since I have not read that series, I don't know how close to the mark that criticism falls.

             BOOK 1:  Dark Witch             

     The story begins as Iona arrives at a hotel in County Mayo, determined to find her cousins. As she walks through the woods, she has her first run-in with the evil Cabhan, although she doesn't realize it at the time. The early chapters follow Iona as she meets her cousins and their friends, begins a job at Boyle and Fin's stables, starts to learn some real witchcraft, and falls head over heels in love with Boyle. Iona is superb with horsesboth as a rider and as a horse whisperer who can communicate with them on all sorts of topics.

     Sprinkled through the love story are scenes related to Cabhan. Sometimes he jumps out at Iona in the shape of a wolf, and sometimes he comes to her in dreams. Mostly, Cabhan is a lurker and a skulker, creating drifts of fog and speaking in disembodied voices. When he does appear, he makes rather half-hearted strikes against Iona, but even in the early chapters when she has few witchy skills, she is able to defend herself. Other scenes involve the six friends' strategy meetings as they make plans to take down Cabhan at the height of the summer solstice. 

     The love story moves along a relatively smooth path until Boyle (a stereotypically gruff and commitment-shy Irish bachelor) panics and accuses Iona of casting a love spell on him. Even then, Iona is—as always—quite reasonable in her reaction to Boyle's accusation. It's obvious to their friends (and to the reader) that the two are in love, so no one really worries too much about their temporary break-up, especially since they remain friendly towards one another. Like many fictional heroines, Iona has had a problematic childhood, but her problem is not all that tragic. Apparently, her parents didn't pay much attention to her when she was a child—didn't attend her sporting events and refused to allow her to embrace her witchy, Irish heritage. Now that she is in Ireland, she loves every single thing about County Mayo and plans to live there forever.

     Iona's friends tease her about her constant babbling, and they definitely have a point there. Even her interior monologues are long-winded and repetitious, as well as being a bit melodramatic. Here's an example, as she muses about her feelings for Boyle: "Light banishes shadows. But like promises made, the light has to believe it….She believed it. Deep down in her belly she carried faith and resolve. And her heart came to accept what she understood as she'd walked with him along the paths and tidy gardens that opened for spring, among the spirits and the legends, into the promise kept by one of hers. She loved. At last. Loved as she'd always hoped. He was her once in a lifetime. And with him she had to learn patience, and hold to that faith as well. The faith that he would love as she loved." (p.236) 

     In the background, two more romances are beginning to simmer. Connor is the village playboy, but we can see that he will eventually wake up and realize that Meara is the girl for him. Their story is told in Shadow Spell. Branna and Fin have loved one another for many years, but Branna can't past the fact that Fin is a descendant of Cabhan. Their story will be told in Blood Magick (11/2014).

     Click HERE to go to the Dark Witch page on where you can click on the cover art at top left and read an excerpt from chapter 1, which sets up the mythology. Click HERE to read chapter three, which begins the present-day story.  

             NOVEL 2:  Shadow Spell             

     Connor and Branna O'Dwyer—brother and sister witches—share a cottage in County Mayo, Ireland, where Branna concocts potions that she sells in a small shop and Connor guides falcon walks at a local horse farm owned by Boyle McGrath, the fiancé of their American cousin, Iona, another witch. Meara Quinn is Branna's best friend. Connor, Branna, and Meara, along with another friend—Fin Burke, also a witch—have been close friends since early childhood. Connor, Branna, and Iona are descendants of the witch, Sorcha, whose story is summarized in the World-Building section below. The six friends call themselves the three and the three: three blood-related witches and three emotionally-related friends. Meara and Boyle are the only non-witchy friends in the group. Eventually, the six friends pair up into three soul-mate couples. Iona and Boyle's story was told in book 1. This book tells Meara and Connor's story.

      After failing to eliminate the seemingly indestructible villain, the sorcerer Cabhan, in the climactic battle that ended book 1, the six friends go back to the drawing board to plot a new line of attack. Meanwhile, Cabhan is getting bolder and bolder, openly attacking Connor one night and nearly killing him with a fiery lightning bolt.

     For Meara, seeing Connor on the verge of death triggers a long-hidden passion, and the next time they are alone, she "launched herself at him, chained her arms around him, and took his mouth like a madwoman." Although somewhat surprised, Connor gives as good as he gets, and they share two long and passionate kisses. At this point, Connor begins to realize that he is truly attracted to Meara, not just as a long-time friend, but as a long-term lover. Meara, though, does not believe in long-lasting romantic relationships because of her painful family history. Her father left the family when Meara was a child, and she has watched her mother disintegrate into a pitiful, needy sad sack who spends her time dreaming about her lost love. Meara is determined that will never happen to her. So…that's the conflict in the love story: Meara's pessimism and her fear of commitment and Connor's optimism and his belief in the possibility of true love. Here is a conversation between the two as Connor uses a fiery metaphor to explain his beliefs about love:

     "Do you see the fire there?"
     "I do, of course."
     "All it takes is a bit of tending, a stir, more fuel, and it'll burn day and night and night and day, give you light and warmth."
     "You could forget to stir it, or run out of fuel."
     "Then you'd be careless, and shame on you for it. Love needs tending, is what I'm saying. It's some work to keep the light and the warmth but why would you want to be cold in the dark." (Chapter 18)

     As soon as Cabhan realizes that Connor is in love with Meara, he adds her to his attack list, attempting to spell her into his power so that he can either turn her against Connor or injure her in some way that will hurt Connor deeply. Unfortunately, Meara sometimes acts before she thinks, and she has one major TSTL moment when she loses her temper and gets herself into a situation that nearly results in her death. 

     The action part of the plot has some similarities to Dark Witch. Just as Iona had a dream meeting with her long-dead counterpart, Teagan, in book 1, Connor meets up with Teagan's brother, Eamon, in this book. Each time Connor dream-visits Eamon, the boy has grown a bit older and stronger. Together, they pledge to destroy Cabhan, although both realize that, ultimately, it will be Connor and his friends who must carry out this dangerous task.

     We see a lot more of the evil Cabhan in this book as he uses lightning, fire, fog, and vicious bats—among other things—to attack the heroic friends. His attacks are much more violent than the ones against Iona in book 1. It seems that Cabhan is getting impatient. He wants the power of the three, and he wants it now. 

     This book isn't quite as treacly as book 1, but still, except for the villain, all of the characters are unrealistically idealized, with the six friends always portrayed as exemplars of kindness, loyalty, and intelligence. 
Meara's troublesher huge temper tantrum and her struggles with her overly dependent motherare actually as welcome as a cool drink of water after a plate of sugary desserts. The only realistic scenes are the few in which Meara and Boylethe only non-magical members of the groupget their feelings hurt when the witches try to protect them by blocking them out of the action. Cabhan is flatly depicted as a stereotypically malevolent and repulsive cartoon-like villain. If he had a mustache, he would be twirling it and laughing maniacally, like Jafar in Aladdin.  

     Speaking of eating, these characters spend so much time shoveling in huge quantities of food that their mealswhich include the preparation, table-setting, eating, and washing upbecame a repetitive and annoying part of the narrative pattern. Here is a partial list of the food they consume in this book: stew, roast chicken, beef bourguignon, soup, bacon, eggs, sausage, fried potatoes, bread, oatmeal, lemon biscuits, gingerbreadThe scenes are choreographed like this: an action scene followed by a meal; a work scene followed by a meal; a romantic interlude followed by a meal; a dream sequence followed by a meal; and on and on. Branna is the chief cook of the series, and every single one of her meals is flawlessly prepared and divinely deliciousnever a wrong seasoning or a scorched potato. This just adds to the unrealistic, highly idealized tone of the series.

     Of course, if you're reading this series, you probably love Nora Roberts' work, so you won't be bothered by the one-dimensional characters and their quaintly romanticized world. Although Roberts can be a good storyteller, the unicorns and rainbows aspects of her world-building and characterization put a damper on my enthusiasm for her writing.    

     Click HERE to go to the Shadow Spell page on where you can click on the cover art at top left and read or listen to an excerpt from chapter 1 that takes you 800 years back in time for a scene with Eagan. Click HERE to read chapter four, which follows Connor on a falcon walk with a father and son pair of tourists.  

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