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Friday, October 11, 2019

The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order The Vine Witch over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Luanne G. Smith lives in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, a glass of wine at the end of the day, and finding the magic in everyday life.

FORMAT/INFO: The Vine Witch is 263 pages long divided over 35 numbered chapters and is the first book in the Vine Witch series. Published by 47North in October 2019, it's the author's debut novel. The cover art and design are by Micaela Alcaino.

OVERVIEW: I’m not sure why I’ve picked The Vine Witch. I have no interest in wine and even less in books with a significant romance arc. I won’t say no to a glass of good wine or to a good romance book, but I don’t actively seek them out. Maybe it was the cover? No idea. To my surprise, I adored every second of Smith’s debut. A sign that I’m growing old and sentimental for sure. 

The Vine Witch, set in a fantasy version of rural France, blends romance, folklore, witchcraft, and murder mystery. Elena Boureanu, the titular vine witch, had never suspected she’d spent seven years eating moths and slugs to survive in a fetid pond, turned into a toad. Focused on making Chateaux Renard's wines exceptional, she paid little attention to petty rivalries or little things. And yet someone has cursed her and turned into an animal.

When she regains her body, she wants nothing more than revenge against whoever stole seven years of her life. She suspects it was her ex-fiancé Bastien Du Monde, ambitious, business-savvy and charismatic vigneron, and she plans to make him pay. First, though, she needs to regain her power. When she returns Chateaux Renard, her home, she discovers it was sold to a scientifically minded ex-lawyer Jean-Paul Martel who seeks a new vocation in life. Her Grand-Mere and magic teacher grew old and lost her edge and the vine that made Renard’s Domaine famous lost its magic:

She took a sip of the wine to chase the memory from her mouth, but if she was looking for relief she was vividly disappointed. None of the musky hues of spice and rose petals the Renard vineyard was famous for hit her palate. It was all chalk and mushrooms.

A closer look at the vineyards make things obvious - someone cursed them. Elena can deal with an intricate spellwork, but her magic reserves are still weak and when Bastien is found dead and Police consider her the prime suspect, things get complicated.

Shaped by historically accurate details, the story feels true to the era of the late Belle Époque. Smith enriched it with fascinating details particular to that era (fashion, automobiles, pre-industrial wine and cheese making practices). I'm sure she's also made a lot of research on witchcraft, witch trials, and herb lore as they're very detailed. All of this in less than 300 pages, something I highly appreciate as it proves the skillful writer can find a perfect balance between world-building, pacing and characterization.

The plot, while slightly predictable in places, impressed me with a great balance between murder mystery, action, and slow-burn romance. Just when I thought I had everything figured out, Smith threw few clever surprises at me, the perfect bitter-sweet ending being one of them. Well done.

Both main characters and their sidekicks feel human. Elena and Jean-Paul are three-dimensional and their romance is believable and engaging. I prefer Elena, but I can see female readers falling for the handsome lawyer whose life is just about to turn upside down.

Elena is a strong lead. Fierce, intelligent, and hungry for knowledge, she's easy to like and admire. Her past remains mysterious but we learn she has mastered divine arts while still in her teens. Hungry for more, she sought the magic she hadn't been taught (including blood magic) and developed an extraordinary talent known as shadow vision. She knows there’s a glorious magic to be found in the darkness and she wants to understand it. I admit I have a soft spot for protagonists with a darker side and Elena fits the archetype well. 

Jean-Paul believes in science and innovation. He treats the mention of magic as the superstitious nonsense and has no interest in seeing it applied in his vineyard. When his beloved laws of physics, doctrines of religion and the empirical evidence of the senses are rendered useless by what he'd seen, he must reassess his beliefs. Smith portrayed his inner conflict well and found a clever way to change him.
And now the romance. I liked it - perhaps because, while important and highlighted, it never overshadowed intricacies of the plot. Jean-Paul and Elena share a strong chemistry. Their beliefs are at odds and this adds some tension to their budding relationship. 

Besides the vine magic and slow-burn romance, I enjoyed the investigation of the murder mystery and Elena’s focus on discovering the witch wielding blood magic. This part of the story went into dark places and added another layer of complexity to the story and characters. 

I need to mention and praise the prose. Rich, nuanced and appealing to all senses it makes reading The Vine Witch a worthwhile experience. I loved the way the author described tastes, smells, landscapes and emotions. Here’s a little sample:

Despite his desire to leave, the fresh-baked smell captivated him, and he reached for the sticky tart. One bite and the full complexity hit him. The pastry tasted of fruit and nuts, butter and brown sugar, and the rich spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, all heat-seared by fire. Sweet, yes, but also sophisticated, heightened by a hint of salted brandy. Not unlike a well-aged wine, he thought, the way the flavors evolved on the tongue. 

Descriptions of food and wine made me salivate. Description of the Chanceaux Valley made me want to visit it. When a book does it to me, I don't need another proof it's well written.

If you’re in the mood for witchcraft, romance, and the wine, I have an inkling you're going to love The Vine Witch.



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