“New York in the spring of 1880 is a place alive with wonder and curiosity. Determined to learn the truth about the world, its residents enthusiastically engage in both scientific experimentation and spiritualist pursuits. Séances are the entertainment of choice in exclusive social circles, and many enterprising women—some possessed of true intuitive powers, and some gifted with the art of performance—find work as mediums.
Enter Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair. At their humble teashop, Tea and Sympathy, they provide a place for whispered confessions, secret cures, and spiritual assignations for a select society of ladies, who speak the right words and ask the right questions. But the profile of Tea and Sympathy is about to change with the fortuitous arrival of Beatrice Dunn.
When seventeen-year-old Beatrice leaves the safety of her village to answer an ad that reads ‘Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply,’ she has little inclination of what the job will demand of her. Beatrice doesn’t know it yet, but she is no ordinary small-town girl; she has great spiritual gifts—ones that will serve as her greatest asset and also place her in grave danger. Under the tutelage of Adelaide and Eleanor, Beatrice comes to harness many of her powers, but not even they can prepare her for the evils lurking in the darkest corners of the city or the courage it will take to face them.”
My Thoughts: As long as there has been a patriarchal society, independent women have been accused of practicing witchcraft. Even today, the idea of a woman who may be more intelligent and/or more talented than a man generates fury and disbelief in some quarters. Historically, men (and a fair share of women) could only rationalize the existence of such women by believing they consort with the devil. It also meant that they could take steps to rid the world of such women. The Witches of New York covers this age-old battle between women and men in the late 1800s New York.
The setting of The Witches of New York is what makes it such a unique witches story. The late 1800s was a fascinating era; one might even consider it a precursor for the 1920s with its battle between old and new. On the one hand, it is the time of spiritualism and a greater acceptance of the supernatural. Anything having to do with ghosts, fortune telling, or speaking with the deceased was fashionable. At the same time, the story also takes place around the time the Comstock Act was passed. Anything deemed obscene or intended for “immoral use” was against the law. This law covered any abortifacient, any method of birth control, and any literature discussing sex. This was also the height of the Victorian Era, during which women had few rights, were considered the weaker sex in all areas, and were expected to be entirely dependent upon a male relative or spouse.
With this unique and dichotomous time period as the setting, Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice must go forth in the world and try to survive. Ms. McKay does an excellent job creating characters that are endearing. Eleanor, Beatrice, and Adelaide are not saints but like all of us just trying to live our lives in a manner that provides satisfaction and happiness. Ms. McKay also excels at balancing the historical background with experiences that modern women will understand all too well. Some fights just never seem to obtain resolution, it seems.
The story is a mix of light-heartedness and darkness. While the death of any person at the hands of another is not something to take lightly, it is difficult not to view the malignant characters as caricatures who will get their just desserts in the end. Similarly, Eleanor and Adelaide have an “Odd Couple” vibe that works for them. Toss in a potential love interest or two, some particularly modern support characters, a bit of magic, and you have a new coven about whom it is so much fun to read.
While The Witches of New York is technically a stand-alone novel, Ms. McKay set up certain elements of the story for a sequel. There are not so many unanswered questions as there is a lack of definitive resolution in a certain area. This in no way diminishes one’s enjoyment of the story however. In fact, it makes me eagerly anticipate a sequel because this cast of characters along with the setting is too good to not want to visit time and again.