To me, there’s nothing more warming when snowbound in the haze of never-ending February than curling up with a spicy romance novel, tea mug in-hand, and evergreen candle setting the olfactory ambiance. Bonus points if said novel is grounded in the magical and paranormal.
From The Craft to Charmed to The Book and Movie Series Which Shall Not Be Named, you can’t throw a stone at pop culture without hitting something witchy. Considering humans have been terrified and fascinated by witchcraft for ages, it makes sense that fresh takes on sorcery are rare. I’ve noticedwitchy narratives tend to fall in three major camps:
1) Underdog protagonists discover their magical abilitiesand fight mythical bad guys (Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series).
2) Unmagical humans encounter evil witches, either perishing or escaping from their brush with a demonic force(Hocus Pocus and The Blair Witch Project).
3) Classics required in Millennial secondary school (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Kathryn Lasky’s Beyond the Burning Time) that fictionalize historical witch trials, highlighting the needless death and mass paranoia.
To be clear, I LOVE these above stories and tropes, but because they’ve been done so well by past creators, I’m less inclined to try out new-to-me witchy stories outside of spooky season.
So, when I checked out Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper from my library on a winter break whim, I was pleasantly surprised. This bubbling cauldron of friendship, flirtation, and family rivalry exploded witchy tropes I’d read and watched many times over.
Emmy Harlow is a twenty-something witch and member of one of four witchy families — Harlow, Blackmoore, Thorn, and Avramov — that founded her hometown of Thistle Grove generations earlier and hide its secrets from non-magical residents. One of the first witches to move away from town’s enchantments, succeeding in a non-magical career in Chicago,Emmy’s magical ability deteriorates, adding to the shame that caused her to leave in the first place: a devastating breakup with Gareth Blackmoore, the town’s hot-shot jerk, after graduation. Emmy’s best friend, Linden Thorn, and mysterious high schoolcrush, Talia Avramov, recently had their hearts broken by Gareth, too.
Emmy returns to her quaint Illinois hometown for The Gauntlet, a competition held every few generations, to fulfill the Harlow Arbiter role of determining the winner from the threecompeting families. The Gauntlet’s prize? Governing the town’s magical influence until the next contest. Blackmoores, descendants of Arthurian sorcery, tend to win each Gauntlet and drive the town’s tourism, business ventures, and profit within their family. As Emmy acclimates to her duties and dusts off hermagic, she learns that the other families are suffering. The Thorn orchard and Avramov apothecary are in dire financial straits due to Blackmoore “Disneyfication” of Thistle Grove. Emmy, Talia, and Linden vow to break with Gauntlet tradition, teaming up to unseat the Blackmoores from magical leadership. Emmy assumes that after the Gauntlet ends, revenge swiftly delivered to Gareth and his ilk, she’ll return to Chicago and reintegrate to a happy, non-magical existence. But what about the sparks flying between Emmy and Talia; they’re just sparks… right?
The Fresh Take
Harper’s story answers the question: What if witches, in this universe, were allowed to thrive after the trials? Knowing their destiny from birth, the Harlows, Thorns, and Avramovs recognize that evil stems from something innately human — greed. No demons needed.
Another part I adored about Payback’s a Witch wasHarper’s linking each Thistle Grove family to myth, two of which were grounded in well-known witchy legends. My favorite connection was Talia Avramov’s heritage tracing to Baba Yaga, the nefarious forest witch of Slavic folklore. Deep in the taiga, protected in her hut on chicken legs, Baba Yaga is a trickster, fiend, and (sometimes) rescuer. Though the Avramov’s do not practice cannibalism, as some tales of Baba Yaga recount, they source their power from the dead. And Talia, as written by Harper, is not the crone feared for her appearance as much as her underworld magic. Baba Yaga continues to captivate readers and writers alike. I feel like I stumble upon a new, beautiful retellingevery few months (Simone Person in The Hunger and Jonathan Cardew in Milk Candy Review, to name a few), so Harper’s reference is another timely tale of this ambiguous folk witch.
If you love Payback’s a Witch, it’s the first installment of Harper’s Witches of Thistle Grove series. I can’t wait to cozy back into the mythical, sensual world Harper creates with From Bad to Cursed.
Spookiness Rating: 👻👻
In Harper’s telling, Baba Yaga’s Thistle Grove descendantsspecialize in spirit magic, communicating with souls beyond the veil to fuel their power. Talia doesn’t hide family secrets from Emmy, so several harrowing, ghostly scenes stand out, but theseadd to the atmosphere and story arc rather than veering toward horror.
Spiciness Level: 🌶🌶🌶🌶
The queer romance in Payback’s a Witch simmers in the aftermath of Emmy and Talia commiserating over Gareth Blackmoore heartbreak. The build-up, flirtation, and spiciestmoments are not the story’s focus, but add to the Gauntlet’s stakes and leave readers satisfied by a plausible happily-ever-after conclusion.
Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Her work appears in Emerge Literary Journal, Rejection Letters, The Lumiere Review, and other fine publications. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.