>> Tuesday, December 03, 2013
With indifferent parents, Iona Sheehan grew up craving devotion and acceptance. From her maternal grandmother, she learned where to find both: a land of lush forests, dazzling lakes, and centuries-old legends.
County Mayo, to be exact. Where her ancestors’ blood and magic have flowed through generations—and where her destiny awaits.
Iona arrives in Ireland with nothing but her Nan’s directions, an unfailingly optimistic attitude, and an innate talent with horses. Not far from the luxurious castle where she is spending a week, she finds her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer. And since family is family, they invite her into their home and their lives.
When Iona lands a job at the local stables, she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath. Cowboy, pirate, wild tribal horsemen, he’s three of her biggest fantasy weaknesses all in one big, bold package.
Iona realizes that here she can make a home for herself—and live her life as she wants, even if that means falling head over heels for Boyle. But nothing is as it seems. An ancient evil has wound its way around Iona’s family tree and must be defeated. Family and friends will fight with each other and for each other to keep the promise of hope—and love—alive...
Dark Witch felt off. Just completely off, and it's one of Nora Roberts' very few misses in the last years.
We start out with an extended prologue which sets up the trilogy. 800 years earlier, dark witch Sorcha (who's the good one here; in this series a dark witch is not one engaged in dark magic) is besieged by the evil Cabhan, who wants to take her powers. She succeeds in escaping him and passes on her powers to her 3 children and their descendants, knowing that at some point in the future, 3 dark witches of her blood will come together to fight the final battle against Cabhan.
In the present, Iona Sheehan has decided to up sticks and move from the US to Ireland, where her beloved Nan was born. There's something about the place that calls to her, and she somehow knows she's meant to be there. And as soon as she knocks on the door of her cousins' place, it becomes clear why. She, and her cousins, Brenna and Connor, are Sorcha's descendants and the ones who are meant to finish off Cabhan.
As Iona trains and develops her powers, she also finds a job that's right up her street. She's always had a connection with horses (each of the three dark witches has that; Brenna and Connor with dogs and falcons respectively), and she's hired at the local stables. There she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath, whom she's immediately attracted to. Iona's always been on the diffident side with men, but she's never wanted one like she wants Boyle.
Ok, so, where to start? I suppose the first thing to say is that this felt derivative. Now, Nora's books have never been unpredictable, but I usually don't care at all. Until this one. It was a bit too much, a mix and match using bits of previous series. The biggest chunk is from the Three Sisters Island trilogy. There's the witches, there's the fight against an old evil, and then there's the characters. To me, that was the most striking bit. Iona reminded me a lot of Nell, the nervous, very unsure and tentative new arrival in the island, who's taken under the wing of the established, confident Brenna/Mia (Iona does prove to be a bit more confident than Nell was, especially with Boyle, but at the beginning, she was forever apologising and babbling). Brenna/Mia is clearly being set up for a romance with a man (Fin/Sam) with whom she shares a history and quite a bit of resentment, a man with his own powers, which will be needed for the final confrontation. Meara, who works with Iona at the stables, is a sort of blander version of Ripley, with some of her experience but none of her "I don't give a shit" abruptness. I liked Meara, but Ripley was much more fabulous To all that, we add a dash of the Ireland from the Gallaghers of Ardmore trilogy, and shades of the Circle Trilogy in the nature of the evil that must be confronted and there, new trilogy.
Then there's the plot about fighting Cabhan, which never even began to engage me. The problem starts with the immediate coming together of the group of 6 (Iona and her cousins, Boyle, Fin and Meara) and their absolute commitment to the future fight. Iona has learnt a bit about her magic from her Nan, but had absolutely no idea of the history or that she's meant to risk her life to fight Cabhan. And yet there is no hesitation when she hears the story. She experiences no doubt or wonders why she should do this or what might happen if she doesn't. She's all "risk my life to defeat this powerful being who's done nothing to me but killed an ancestress 800 years ago? Of course, sure, let's do it." Bizarre. I kept thinking of Iolanthe, in Sherry Thomas' The Burning Sky, whose first reaction in a similar situation was, very sensibly, "the hell I will, I want to live and this is a suicide mission!", but who was convinced of the necessity of the struggle by experiencing the reality of the evil of what they're up against.
I think that realisation of the reality of what they're up against was precisely what was lacking here. Because you see, Cabhan is just not scary. He's nothing more than a sort of cloud of... well, I can't really say "evil", because although our protagonists think he is, he doesn't really do much here to warrant that description. He attacks them because he wants their power and because he knows they mean to destroy him. Sure, you wouldn't want him to succeed, but evil? For all we know, he seems to have spent the ensuing 800 years waiting as this disembodied force. There isn't much of a sense of menace.
It didn't help that the magic in this book feels silly. It's all very twee, with rhyming spells (which made me giggle uncontrollably) and floating bits of fire and stuff like that. There are some scenes where Iona is supposed to do things that are spectacular, but they didn't feel so, they felt meh.
The romance just wasn't great. I did like how the otherwise shy Iona basically blurts out her feelings for Boyle in front of everyone and pursues him, but then the romance develops in a bit of a frustrating way. Everything's fine, and then there's a point where they experience a crisis which felt very forced, making what to me was a lot about nothing much. I didn't particularly care whether they got back together or not, and that's the mark of a very boring romance.
The final thing in my litany of complaints is the way Roberts approaches her setting here. It's an area she's usually great at. Her settings, both physical and thematic (by that I mean, say, the world of smoke jumpers in Chasing Fire) are big parts of her books, and they usually come alive and are fascinating. Ireland, though, she seems to fetishise, and that's a problem. There's no shred of anything that feels real in her setting here (for instance, this is a world where every small business is thriving and doesn't seem to have experienced any issues in the previous years), but the problem is how it's all romanticised. Things like the way her Irish characters spoke felt really off. I live in Liverpool, so I have a fair few Irish friends and acquaintances. Not one of them speaks like Yoda.
There were some things I did like here. Iona is the child of extremely distant parents, and it's lovely to see her begin to build a family with the rest of the circle. The developing friendship between her and Meara and Fin, and the way Brenna and Connor become her family were the strong points of the book. Other than that, though, this was a bust.
MY GRADE: A C-.