Genre: Contemporary Fantasy / Romance
Content warnings: violence, graphic injuries, panic attacks
Perfect when you’re in the mood for: a revenge pact between a group of hot-headed witches, fantastical sapphic love or a dramatic witchery tournament
Emmy Harlow has been trying to sever ties with Thistle Grove. The magical weakness inherent to the Harlow bloodline and her tumultuous history with town bad boy, Gareth Blackmoore, have overshadowed the adoration she once held for her hometown. Much to her displeasure, while forging her own path as an entrepreneur in distant Chicago, Emmy is summoned back to serve as the arbitrator of the annual Gauntlet tournament. Even worse, the contest has been the victory-laden stomping ground of the Blackmoore family for generations.
Amidst reconnecting with her childhood friend, Linden Thorn, and finding solace in the company of the elusive Talia Avramov, a realisation emerges. All three witches have been screwed over by the same douche, and they all desire revenge. With Gareth mantling his family's name in the Gauntlet and competing against the bitter Talia, the young women form a pact to end the reign of the Blackmoores and take down its prince once and for all. But why can’t Emmy get up and leave like she did the first time? Payback’s a Witch is a modern-day witch tale of mysterious, adventurous and sultry escapades.
And seeing Gareth Blackmoore, Prince of Bastards, take it on the chin surely wouldn’t hurt.
Payback’s A Witch is a testament to an old piece of wisdom: ‘running away won’t solve all your problems’. A lesson I’m sure many of us have been given at least once. Emmy’s struggle with feeling trapped within Thistle Grove’s birthright walls parallels the struggles of many people in their early to mid-twenties as they embark on journeys in the real world. Unfortunately, Harper’s representation of this struggle leaves a lot to be desired. It often felt like she was trying to tackle too many problems or ideas with not enough time or effort put into each one. The intricacies of love, belonging, revenge, family and friendship were all roped into the commentary on young adulthood, but the breadth of these topics left little room for proper resolution. Combining this with a fantastical witchery competition and bringing in historical elements for the setting left neither feeling properly fleshed out. As a result, there was a real sense the author bit off more than she could chew, and the pacing of the story flounders. I also picked up on a few plot holes.
Now, onto the cast, which is interesting at best and boring at worst. Emmy is a hothead who craves independence and understanding of her place in the world. Talia is charming, mysterious and thoughtful, dedicating her life to the Avramov family and their cause, and Linden is a sarcastic and supportive caretaker. Beyond the main three, there isn’t a lot to say about the other characters. Despite being the book’s ‘big bad’, we don’t know all that much about Gareth. This is somewhat understandable as the book is written from Emmy’s perspective, but it makes him a very one-dimensional antagonist who doesn’t do much to advance the plot. We don’t know anything about his interests or who he is aside from being a thorn in seemingly everyone's side. Emmy never even explains what she saw in him in the first place. At points I just felt like the central conflict of the book was inherently flawed because Emmy gave Gareth way too much power for a person that she hasn’t interacted with in any meaningful way in years. His narrative weight felt unjustified given his lack of presence on the page. This problem is consistent with all of the Thistle Grove families. The Blackmoores are all dominant, cruel and selfish like Gareth. The Thorns are nurturing and passive like Linden. The Avramovs are mystifying, cryptic and abrasive like Talia. The Harlows are a mixed bag. It may have been intended to highlight the respective upbringings of these characters and how their families have shaped them, but in practice it made them all feel rather bland and samey. Harper seemed to have difficulty balancing her supporting cast because there would be times where the story demanded more from them and they’d disappear. It felt like the characters existed only to serve the current arc, and afterwards they’d be rendered useless and vanish for the next.
“You know, I honestly didn’t think you were ever coming back,” she cut me off, tears thick in her voice. “ . . . I thought you were over Thistle Grove for good. Done with this place, done with . . . with me.”
One of the biggest complaints that I’ve seen about the book is that it is extremely cheesy and corny, and I am inclined to agree. It’s hard to take Harper’s writing seriously when the chapters are called things like ‘The Sexy Tundra Wolf’. I couldn’t tell if she wanted the characters to sound like they’re from the present day or from a Victorian-era witchery circle. Maybe she wanted to blend both, but the two clashed at times and made it hard to immerse myself in the story. I felt incredibly mesmerised by the descriptions of Thistle Grove’s traditional magic, only to be ripped out of my trance by present-day dialogue or references to modern technology or Emmy’s life in Chicago. It’s a hard thing to balance, and I could see how it was maybe used as a narrative device to show how Emmy is trapped between her two worlds. However, when Harper does get serious, her writing stings. There were many times while reading where I was able to understand exactly what her characters were feeling and why. While inconsistent at times, the characters had their viewpoints or actions realistically challenged, which produced satisfying character growth. A great example of this is Linden revealing her fears of being left behind after Emmy had abandoned Thistle Grove for Chicago. Emmy finally realised that by leaving with no explanation, she hurt the people she was closest to and had a lot to make up for.
Thistle Grove is a great setting, although at times I felt it needed more exploration. A town which is a weird eclectic mix of witches and normal humans who live amongst each other and use their magic to keep the town functioning. The mythology of the four town founders was interesting, and I enjoyed reading about how the different families interacted with their respective founders beyond the grave. Emmy’s description of the atmosphere of Thistle Grove with the ebbing and flowing of the magic was incredibly immersive.
Harper’s worldbuilding tried to introduce too many concepts and problems that were then dropped after first mention. You could argue that, as the opening book to a trilogy, its job is to set up future conflicts and concepts for the sequels, which justifies leaving so many loose ends scattered everywhere. But to me, it made the book feel incomplete. If it were a standalone novel, Payback’s A Witch would definitely suffer from having too many concepts with little proper closure, and as a trilogy opener, it still feels messy to me. Instead of leaving mysteries that I wanted to read more about in a sequel, I just felt like plotlines had been randomly abandoned. What is the history between Rowan and Issy? What happened to the Gauntlet-winning family gaining more power or magical skill? What unique proficiency do the Harlows possess beyond arbitrating like the other families? All of these were questions I had that, as far as I could tell, didn’t have concrete answers.
The night air gusted against my face, smelling like an absolute of fall; woodsmoke and dying leaves and the faintest bracing hint of future snow. And right below that was the scent of Thistle Grove magic, which I’ve never come across anywhere else. Spicy and earthy, as if the lingering ghost of all the incense burned by three hundred years of witches had never quite blown away. A perpetual Halloween smell, the kind that gave you the good-creepy sort of tingles.
I know it sounds like I’m being very critical, and one might wonder why I still gave it three stars with all these complaints. There’s still a lot to like about this book. Going into it blind, I had no idea that there would be a sapphic relationship, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Emmy and Talia. I thought Linden and Rowan were likeable characters too. Emmy’s central internal conflict of not knowing where she belongs was relatable. Emmy’s realisation that her actions haven’t just impacted her but everyone around her was a satisfying moment. It really made it clear that, for most of her life, Emmy has been stuck in her own head to the point that she wouldn’t consider those who care about her. While occasionally cheesy, there were moments where Harper’s writing was genuinely clever and witty, and there were a few lines that made me chuckle out loud.
Payback’s A Witch is a fun introduction to The Witches of Thistle Grove trilogy. While it has flaws that I could not ignore, the book has an endearing charm and great ideas that I hope will be broadened and better utilised in its younger siblings, From Bad to Cursed and Back in a Spell. I hope the stories that Harper has to tell through these characters and the town of Thistle Grove only improve from this point forward.
“ . . . This town is in your blood, in a way you might not even understand just yet.”
Rating: 3 stars.