I’ve been looking for a good witchy read to get in the mood for fall (I am SO over summer right now). I love the A Discovery of Witches series, by Deborah Harkness and I’m constantly looking for something that evokes the same kind of high stakes drama, with a hefty dose of romance.
Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey wasn’t that book. At all. But I really, really liked it. It’s a book about grief, family and learning to love. It’s a unique book about witches in that it isn’t based on more typical Northeast U.S./Salem-ish witches, with spatterings of other more traditional magical creatures. Instead, Spells of Blood and Kin focuses on Russian folklore, which means that if you’re looking for something Salem-ish, move on.
When I scanned through Goodreads reviews, I found that the majority of people who didn’t like this book seemed to have trouble with the fact that the supernatural creatures in this book weren’t easy to pin down in terms of the usual fare. The “kin” aren’t werewolves or vampires explicitly, nor do we ever get a detailed definition of who and what they are, how many there are, or even the full picture on the primary kin character. No, this book does things its own way.
The book is told from a threefold POV: Lissa (our witch), Maksim (our centuries-old kin) and Nick (our brand new kin), accompanied by a small cast of side characters. When the story opens we find that Lissa’s grandmother has just died and she’s bound to follow in Baba’s footsteps as the local witch in her Russian-Canadian community. Barred from the church, but simultaneously respected and feared, Lissa is a bit isolated until her stepsister, Stella, crashes into her life.
Our second protagonist, Nick – and I kind of hesitate to call him a protagonist, as he’s the most unlikable and problematic character of the bunch – is a college student with a drinking problem. Even before his supernatural trip, he’s kind of a jackass and a bad friend. But his life gets turned upside down when he is mugged outside a bar, and a dark stranger randomly licks his bloody face. Yeah, that happens, which brings us to Maksim.
Maksim’s control over his violent urges are slipping, resulting in lost time and situations like the aforementioned oddity. Maksim is kin and when Lissa’s grandmother dies, he starts to lose his mind, which brings him to her for help. We get plenty of flashbacks into Maksim’s past to help us understand why he enlisted the help of a witch to begin with, especially when it seems his kind are largely repelled by them.
Sometimes I have a problem when multiple POVs exceed two perspectives, but in this case I think it works well. I’m not sure I would have understood the ending, which is a bit of a surprise, if I hadn’t had a close look at our three protagonists. I especially appreciate the way that Maksim’s perspective is a bridge of understanding between Lissa and Nick’s characters. Really, the book wouldn’t work if told from just Lissa and Nick’s perspectives, or Maksim and Lissa’s; you couldn’t understand the way the characters end up otherwise.
I liked that Humphrey doesn’t give us a “big bad.” Regular human problems like grief, family troubles, addiction and major life changes are all addressed with the amplification of the supernatural elements in the story. But honestly, all three characters are easy to relate to because they struggle with the kinds of things we’re familiar with: how the death of a loved one will change your life, the way some friends become family and some family will never fit into your life, no matter how hard you try to make it work.
I also appreciate that Humphrey writes Nick as the quintessential example of toxic masculinity. He’s angry at women, he’s violent, he’s entitled and a pain in the rear for everyone who’s trying desperately to help him. Sure, this is made worse by the fact that Maksim turns him into a supernaturally strong immortal creature, defined by rage. However, when we have Maksim and his companion Augusta to compare him to, it’s clear that becoming kin ramps up your “bad”side, but it doesn’t make you into a brand new person.
Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, Spells of Blood and Kin went a long way to satisfy my witchy-read itch. It has a slower pace than a lot of books about supernatural stuff and is also a bit shorter. I was a little surprised when I glanced down to find I’d read 97% of the book in two evenings. I recommend it to folks who enjoyed Station Eleven’s unique, slightly slower feel, even though this is a much different book in terms of subject matter.
Allison Carr Waechter is off to the wild next week. Enjoy our conversation about Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle while she’s gone.