Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, May 24, 2021

Monday, May 24, 2021: Maximum Shelf: The Orphan Witch

St. Martin's Griffin: The Orphan Witch by Paige Crutcher

St. Martin's Griffin: The Orphan Witch by Paige Crutcher

St. Martin's Griffin: The Orphan Witch by Paige Crutcher

St. Martin's Griffin: The Orphan Witch by Paige Crutcher

The Orphan Witch

by Paige Crutcher

The Orphan Witch, Paige Crutcher's debut novel, weaves together myths and legends surrounding witchcraft in a suspenseful novel of magic, curses and what it means to belong. Generations ago, Wile Isle was cursed by the Wayfair sisters, both of whom were witches and lived on the small, remote island. "It was about magic and power, and the two coming together to take down anyone who stood in its path. And this night, this night with its wind blowing in from the wrong direction and the green lightning emblazing the skies, well... it was only the beginning."

In the present day, Persephone May has been "misplaced," from the moment she was left on the doorstep of a firehouse as an infant through a solitary adulthood spent bouncing from job to job and town to town. It's because Persephone May is different, bursting with an uncontrolled power that causes anyone she gets close to--or even makes eye contact with--to run fast and hard away from her, often at their peril. When she flirts with a man at her most recent gig as a barista and he promptly runs into oncoming traffic, she's on the road again, fleeing the evil she believes lives inside of her, cutting her off from true connection. She longs for "a place she could not just escape into, but where she might belong. It was the oldest of all her dreams, and she tried to swat it away, but this time it scooted closer, pressed its way into her heart." Then she receives an e-mail from Hyacinth Ever, the only friend she's ever known (and for reasons she doesn't understand, the only one she hasn't driven away). "[She] had asked her to visit before, but Persephone couldn't tell if it was a pie-crust invitation (easily made and easily broken) or if she'd meant it"--and so Persephone sets off for a visit. 

Hyacinth lives on the remote Wile Isle, off the coast of North Carolina, with her sister, Moira. But Wile Isle is no ordinary island, and Persephone realizes this the minute she steps foot on its shore, with "air thick as a wool blanket, and [the taste of] power on her tongue." From that first moment, she is drawn to the place, and pulled increasingly into the Ever sisters' world and schemes. Hyacinth and Moira (and in short order, Persephone, too) are determined to break the 100-year-old curse that holds back the power of Wile Isle and binds them to the island. As they work to dispel the curse, Persephone realizes she might just get what she has longed for: a place to escape into, a place to belong. But at what cost? And to what end? "The problem," she learns, "was that the price of magic wasn't high, it was absolute."

This proves to be the central tension in The Orphan Witch, as Crutcher reveals a complex world of magic, with time travel and ghosts, multiple dimensions and old witch family trees.

As the worldbuilding comes into focus over the course of the novel, Wile Isle becomes as much a character in Crutcher's fast-paced story as the witches themselves, stubborn and willful and steeped in ancient power: "Wile Isle had a will almost as strong as [Persephone's]--clearly she was on a magical island with control issues." And watching the island interfere in Persephone's carefully laid plans proves the highlight of The Orphan Witch, as the island has access to secrets the modern-day witches could never have imagined--including the ancient magical Library of the Lost, with Dorian, a particularly attractive, if somewhat ornery, librarian. These secrets push The Orphan Witch toward a spectacular conclusion, with Persephone, the Ever sisters and a handful of others drawn into a magic that predates and outpowers them all--unless they can find a way to work together, giving Persephone that sense of belonging she's always lacked.

The Orphan Witch draws extensively on the existing lore and legends of witchcraft, as Crutcher imbues each page of the novel with as much feeling of magic as one might imagine in the air of Wile Isle itself. Those with a keen eye for detail will delight in the small nods to witches and magic throughout, with herbs and teas and spells and wards dancing across the pages of The Orphan Witch to even more thoroughly bring Crutcher's imagined magic--and magical island--to life. And that proves to be the perfect moody and atmospheric backdrop for Persephone's journey to self-discovery, as she finally stops running from her power--and therefore herself--and chooses to confront everything that scares her in the world in order to maybe, finally, find a place--and people--she can call her own. The Orphan Witch marks an exciting new voice in fantasy writing. --Kerry McHugh

St. Martin's Griffin, $16.99, trade paper, 352p., 9781250797377, October 5, 2021

St. Martin's Griffin: The Orphan Witch by Paige Crutcher

Paige Crutcher: Sisterhood, Magic and a Lost Witch

Paige Crutcher's work has appeared in various anthologies and online publications. In her debut novel, The Orphan Witch (St. Martin's Griffin, October 5, 2021), Persephone May steps into her power--somewhat literally--on the magical, remote Wile Isle. Crutcher is an artist and yogi; former correspondent for PW; co-owner of Hatchery, an online marketing company; and enjoys spending time in the woods with her children.

If someone asked what you were working on while you were writing, how did you describe the book?

That's a good question. You know, I didn't talk about this book a lot. I stayed pretty in my head when I was writing The Orphan Witch, probably because it was the book I spent years being too intimidated to write. I was lucky to have a friend, though, who read the first draft as I wrote it. When I initially described the book to her, I think I framed it as a story about sisterhood and magic, centered around a lost witch who doesn't realize her powers until she finds home among the cursed witches who live on a mysterious island in the Outer Banks. 

What ultimately drove you past that intimidation to get started?

I was at the place where I was thinking of giving up. I had spent years working on my craft, improving, but still not getting where I wanted to go. I have a slew of novels in a trunk under my bed, so to speak, from the past decade. I was pregnant with my daughter, and a close friend asked what I would write if I could write anything. I told her about this book I had a seed of an idea for. She loved the idea and told me I had to write it for her. So I decided to try.

I think my intimidation stemmed from my love of the genre. I found such immense happiness as a teen reading Anne Rice's novels. The lush gorgeousness of those worlds, and the threads of story, history and magic woven together. I didn't think I had what it took to write a book of magic. I had to stop comparing myself to what existed in the genre and give myself permission to simply write the best book I could.   

Are the witches cursed, or is it Wile Isle? 

Both, as I see it. The curse is rather tied to each of them, like a pulley system. 

I love that--a pulley system. How did you imagine this kind of magic, and the world you built? Did you do research, outline backstories or dive right in?

The first thing I did was empty everything in my head out onto the page. It gave me a feel for the voice of Persephone, and where the story sort of naturally wanted to go. It was only a few short chapters, but it provided the start of a foundation. Then I wrote out a list of the elements, tropes and twists I personally love to read. To build the world, I started with Patricia Wrede's Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions, answering and revising my answers to her Rules of Magic. Along the drafting way, I watched Neil Gaiman's Masterclass, and spent a lot of time on K.M. Weiland's website (and podcasts and books), which give writers and authors individual steps for outlining, fleshing out backstory and building scenes. I tried not to rush the process, and as I revised the novel, the world deepened and developed more and more. 

That makes sense, given how complex some of the world in The Orphan Witch is. And that's not even including The Library of the Lost and the role it plays in Persephone's story.

Dorian and The Library kind of just showed up, which I am ever so grateful to them both for doing. Both Dorian and The Library present one way when Persephone discovers them, and in the end sort of present the opposite of how she originally saw them. I think The Library's origin story is likely a combination of my love for Doctor Who (particularly the episode "Silence in the Library"), and how libraries and bookstores have always felt like home to me.

What about research into the various aspects of witchcraft in the book: the herbs and teas, and signs, elements and whatnot. What was that process like for you?

I have done research over the years, because I find such joy in learning about witches and witchcraft. I've discovered a number of terrific podcasts, documentaries, books and blogs. Some of which gave me a starting point of inspiration for creating an element of my (fictional) magic. I also did a bit of research on physics before writing The Orphan Witch. Most of the research never makes it on the page, but the more I read, the more I want to know. 

Do you consider this a "quest" novel? So many characters here are searching for something--some cure or escape or solution.

I didn't originally think of The Orphan Witch as a quest novel, but when I think about life in general, I think of it as being full of many (occasionally mini) quests. I think of the characters in the book as people, and people are always searching. We find one thing and then the next thing appears and off we go. That is a little too simplistic, but I ultimately think we are all searching for something in some way, whether it's love, healing, peace, joy or something else. 

One thing that struck me about the characters is how many of them operate in a kind of gray area; in so many stories (and in life!) we want to classify things as "bad" or "good," but each character here is a mix of both.

I don't think people are ever just one thing. Life is messy. There is simply so much unknown in life all the time, and we operate from our little corners of knowing--which means we miss things, or make mistakes, or missteps. I don't see myself in people who are "good" or "bad," but rather in those who, when they stumble or fall, they get back up. I also find a character operating in the gray far more interesting than someone who is simply good or bad.

Is there anything you would be willing to share about what you are working on next?

I am currently working on a book about witches and magic, promising mistakes, and the power of memory. --Kerry McHugh

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