If we’re all being honest, and I’m really trying to do just that, I finished Winter Tide a few weeks ago, and didn’t really get around to writing about it. On the other hand, I got married in that time, so there was a lot going on. So since then, I managed to start and finish a whole other book in that time so we have more to talk about!
I actually already owned the hard copy of the book, but like I said, I really struggle to sit with a book for any length of time. I’m pretty patient, but I do other things to decompress, and sometimes reading just feels hard. Maybe I’m in a slump and I just need to start again (I really should while I’m at home), but my wife likes video games and so do I and that’s what we do.
This time, we read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, a recommendation from Sam after she had read it and really enjoyed it. And that was before she started getting that whole witch-vibe going, so it was already good, as far as I knew. I grabbed it on Audible and gave it a listen. We’re definitely going to get some spoilers, so before you go down, READ THE BOOK!
I’m serious, the short version is that the book was good and you should check it out. Don’t take my word for it, go experience it. When you’re done and want to feel vindicated about your newfound joy, these thoughts will still be here waiting for when you return.
So what’s it about?
Connie is an up-and-coming grad student of history in Harvard circa 1991. Her advisor, Professor Manning Chilton, is trying to help her decide what her dissertation should be about when her mother sends her across the way to Marble Head Massachusetts to sell her Grandmother’s house. There, within an old bible, she discovers the name, Deliverance Dane, a lost woman accused of witchcraft in Salem during the infamous 1692 witch trials. Thus begins a search for who this mysterious woman was, how she’s related to Connie, as well as her book, which may hold the key to it all and more.
Already, this had something going that Winter Tide didn’t. It’s not entirely fair to compare them, but they’re both alternative history, science fiction fantasy, with mystery elements. It’s hard not to look at both right after the other. In this case, DD was much more beholden to its mystery, more thought out and focused. Winter Tide seemed to just have moments come and go, with little warning to when they were coming and even less when the moment would pass.
Deliverance Dane was, by extension, more predictable, but at least things seemed logical in their set up. The motivations of the characters were directly tied to the outcome of the mystery, rather than just wanting things and then suddenly remembering that there’s a mystery to solve (jinkies!). Connie wasn’t the most innovating protagonist ever written, but she was never annoying or unreasonable. Her choices made sense, she made decisions that had consequences, and then dealt with those consequences. “Therefore”, instead of “and then”. There were never strange jumps just to fit scenes into the plot, events had a nice flow that led from one to the other. There were a LOT of characters in Winter Tide, sometimes all in the same room at once and doing things, which could get confusing. All of the characters in DD felt like they mattered, although hetero romance kind of bores me at this point.
Not that it doesn’t happen, but I was excited for some gay witch ladies taking back their story from the patriarchy. We can’t always get what we want, but that would have been a neat thing, I could have seen Connie get together with other people that weren’t men. The character herself talks about never really getting along with men and never being able to make dating work for them. Sam, as a side note, didn’t have to be a guy either, but he was and we can’t change that now. Call me a liberal, but Tumblr has spoiled me, I just look for those kinds of things in the stories I read.
Magic’s in the Air
After reading Outlander, I sometimes feel like ‘girl meets boy’ kind of stories don’t really do it for me anymore. Since they have to fall in love in the span of a single book, things can sometimes feel a little rushed. They have scenes together, but even I can see that they’re infatuated with each other. It only took a few weeks, and suddenly they want to lay down life and limb for one another, and it just feels weird. It took time in Outlander – it took time in my own life – for us to fall really in love. I know that things have to progress for the sake of the story, but I’m okay taking some time with the characters and getting to know them on a really deep level. Sam and Connie just think the other one is hot for the most part. Nothing wrong with that, but hard to believe that they would give it all up for the other by the time the book is wrapping up.
Speaking of characters, Chilton was an interesting problem for me considering the story. I really enjoy characters like him, people that are willing to give it all for their discoveries, as well as people that create illusions of themselves that they pursue with reckless abandon. However, near the end of the book, in the middle of the climax, Connie just lays all of that out for the audience, about how weak and grasping he is while hiding behind his intelligence. Which is really interesting, but I would have preferred to come to that conclusion myself, after spending a little more time with the character. I didn’t think I could reach that understanding with how many scenes he had been in by the time Connie laid out exactly what kind of person he was. I’m okay doing a little work, and I know he didn’t figure prominently in the book, but I would have preferred that. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s worth mentioning. As a ‘cunning woman’, Connie can glimpse the nature of people. Which is convenient for the audience, but perhaps more convenient for the writer, who then doesn’t have to prove that people are who they are. She can just tell you exactly how they are.
And although the mystery was good, in a way that I didn’t know what was going to happen, I did catch things a long time before the characters noticed them. There were a few clothes, like the almanac or Connie’s name, that I noticed pretty quickly that took the book a long to acknowledge as relevant. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but sometimes it makes the characters feel a little dumb, when the reader, who is not a historical graduate, can pick up things that a supposed graduate student can’t.
But the magic was fun – cinematic and visceral. There were great descriptions that helped to make it feel real, like something you could actually experience, so I really liked that aspect. It felt powerful, and it made sense why someone would be after it.
All in all, it was a clean story that did its job, made me feel some things, and didn’t overstay it’s welcome. I didn’t hate any of the characters, thought that reincorporation was used effectively, and it kept me guessing about what was going to happen up through the end. I even got surprised a couple times, which was a really nice feeling.
Check out Deliverance Dane however you can. It’s not long, you can get through it fast and enjoy it for what it is. It’s got me all on a witch-kick right now, and I really want to take a trip to New England to find a lost piece of history and have an adventurous search for the truth.