Thanks to Wunderkind for sending me an ARC of The Vine Witch in exchange for an honest review.
Happy Halloween season, everyone! I probably should have said that in my first review of October, but I think this one is probably the most fitting to make that announcement on anyway.
I’ve already established that I love stories about witches. Unlocking the mysteries of how their magic works, how they interact, how they live—it’s all so fascinating, no matter the iteration. But if you combine the mysteries of witchcraft with early twentieth-century France, a cast of compelling characters, and an increasingly intriguing magical world, then The Vine Witch, written by Luanne G. Smith, creates some good old-fashioned storytelling magic.
Elena Boureanu is finally freed from a seven-year curse as a toad. Upon returning to her home in a chateau in a vineyard, she still finds her devoted mentor, named Grand-Mere, waiting for her, as well as Jean-Paul Martel, a young city lawyer who has just bought the property. Although shocked that so much has changed without her, and to see such a new pretty face, Elena has no time to waste. She wants revenge on the witch who cursed her. But when Elena is accused of murder, she must race to unlock not only the mystery of who cursed her, but also who would frame her for a crime she did not commit.
It’s hard knowing where to begin with this book. The atmosphere? The world-building? Because any fantasy that somehow builds a whole and interesting world without countless info dumps is a wonder to me. The world also feels wholly like its own. At once it feels medieval and fairytale-like, but also like someplace you might find if you turned the right corner in an old town. The book takes place in 1920s France, but you never forget that fact. Sometimes, setting a story in a faraway country, in a faraway time, can be just as magical as any fantasy world.
Also, the chateau in the vineyard is such a charming setting. It still has that fairytale feel of a witch’s cottage in the forest, but with a more mature touch. It’s also an original vocation for a literary witch: caring for grape vines and soil, and knowing with one taste each and every ingredient of the wine.
I probably haven’t enjoyed a YA protagonist this much since Kora in A Touch of Gold. Elena was awesome! She was charming and smart, but more comfortable among her spells and potions. She was witty, but not cutting, striking the right balance between cunning and sweet. The quickest way to my heart as a protagonist is if they are smart, but not self-righteous; sweet, but not helpless, and especially if their main characteristic is not their beauty or being different from other girls. Elena is just another ordinary witch going about her business, making her much more relatable.
Also, although Elena is vengeful, that does not make her cold or unfeeling. She has other everyday things to do, like running errands and taking care of the vineyard. I like seeing protagonists doing ordinary things in the midst of an otherwise fantastical story.
The narrative is split between Elena and the newcomer to the chateau, Jean-Paul Martel. If I’m not a fan of brooding Byronic recluses, I go weak in the knees for academic types like him. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, studies law, and, while logical about the ways of the world, is still open-minded when confronted with reality. We’re also talking about a 1920s academic, so, if I were confronted with Jean-Paul at a party, I’d be blushing ripe as a strawberry. Plus, a man who likes a good wine…oh, boy, I’m smiling just thinking of sharing a glass with him.
If I have one nitpick among all the awesome in this book, though, it would be the climax. For one thing, the villain indulges in the cliché “We’re not so different, you and I” talk with Elena, and the monologuing goes on….and on…and on. I understand the reason for why the scene goes on like that, but it still stretches itself close to a breaking point. The villain was also kind of obvious throughout the story, and I was expecting more of a twist. Then again, I cannot fault a villain—at long, long last—that revels in being evil, and we don’t suffer through a shock-value twist.
The book also leaves room open for a sequel, which begs the following questions: Why are there so few really good standalone YA books anymore? Why does every single good YA novel feel the need to follow up with a sequel? I have enough series to keep track of, and I always hate being taken by surprise like this…!
Anyway, despite those nitpicks, this is still a wonderfully enjoyable book! The protagonist is the right balance of all the right things, and the love interest quite attractive. Not to mention the splendid world-building and original setting! Whether it’s the witching season or not, you can—if you’re of drinking age—enjoy your favorite wine as you read this, and imagine whether a witch might have helped create it.