Book/Author and Year Published: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith (2019)
Age/Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Preferred Reading Environment: On a porch swing, enjoying the crisp fall air
Reading Accoutrements: Enjoy your favorite wine and cheese pairing while you read!
Content Notes: Murder, Kidnapping, Torture
As I mentioned before, I’m using October as an excuse to read all of the fantasy books that are cluttering up my to-read list. I was really excited to include The Vine Witch in the list of books I set aside to review for October because it’s written by a new author! Any chance I get to read new authors (and find new books/series to obsess over), I’m taking it.
The Vine Witch follows Elena Boureanu, a vine witch (no surprise) in the Chanceaux Valley of France. Witch burning is a distant memory in Europe and it has become fashionable to “dabble” in the occult. The Chanceaux Valley is world-renowned for its wine – and every vineyard in the Valley credits their success to the vine witches who ensure that every step is done perfectly, from planting the grapes to storing the wine. Among those vineyards is Chateau Renard, where Elena grew up and helped to make one of their most successful vintages.
Seven years before the start of the book, Elena was cursed as she walked back to Chateau Renard from the home of her fiance. She spent the last seven years as a toad in a swamp a few days’ travel from the Chanceaux Valley. Luckily, whoever cursed her relied too heavily on the predators of the swamp to finish the kill and Elena was able to break the curse. On the trek home, she plots her revenge against the pocket watch-carrying witch who cursed her – and whoever hired the witch to curse Elena in the first place.
When she finally arrives at Chateau Renard, Elena is shocked to discover that the vineyard is struggling and nothing is as she left it. Her mentor sold the vineyard to a city gentleman named Jean-Paul Martel, a man with a passion for wine, a love of science, and a dislike of the occult. Because he has no idea that competing vineyards have hexed his vines, the vintages coming out of Chateau Renard have gotten progressively worse. Elena must work around the new owner to ensure that her beloved home will survive while she plots revenge against the man she believes orchestrated her curse and subsequent disappearance.
Meanwhile, the Chanceaux Valley is under a more sinister threat. Small animals are appearing dead all over town, completely drained of their blood. Elena knows what the dead animals signify: a black witch has settled into the territory. In order to protect her home, she will have to deal with more than a few simple hexes on one vineyard.
When I first started reading The Vine Witch, I was very confused. The blurb doesn’t mention the time-period of the story (other than to say “turn of the century”) and there is no year given anywhere in the book itself. Elena’s clothes throughout are described as long skirts and dresses that cover her all the way to the ankle (which, honestly, doesn’t give a lot of context for the time frame). The men in the story often wear top hats, which helps a bit to narrow it down; at least then I knew it wasn’t modern-day and it wasn’t the middle ages. Knowing that people were obsessing over the occult narrows it down even further, but I ultimately found out the time period from the internet. That’s right, not knowing the correct time frame to put the story in my brain was so distracting that I had to put the book down and look it up. Maybe that wouldn’t bug you, but it bothered me, so I’m just going to tell you that the book takes place at the turn of the 20th century, aka the early 1900s.
Elena is a very bitter character at the beginning of this book. She is upset that she was cursed and that the curse has resulted in so many negative things she must work through. That attitude is understandable; it is just hard to live in her head for so long without getting annoyed at her angst. I was very glad when the perspective changed to Jean-Paul. His demeanor is not the only reason his sections are some of my favorite parts of the book. Jean-Paul is a scientifically-minded man with a law degree, but he bucked the tradition of working for the family law firm in order to buy a vineyard and try his hand at wine making. He remembers vacations in the Chanceaux Valley when he was young and he wants to be able to create delicious wine like the long-time residents.
Jean-Paul did his research and invested in all of the latest technology to help make his vineyard successful, but his science-brain is more of a hindrance to his success than he realizes. He doesn’t realize that competing vineyards (and their vine witches) have hexed his fields to keep the soil too moist or to cause disease. Here’s my favorite part: when he finally starts coming around to the idea of witchcraft and magic, he goes to talk to a priest. Jean-Paul is shocked to discover that the priest believes in the abilities of the vine witches and is unbothered by it, until the priest explains further.
The monastery where Jean-Paul meets this priest is known for the cheese that the residents produce and sell. The cheese and the process of its creation are no secret to the cheese-makers; they know that bacteria are responsible for the process and those that “make” the cheese simply ensure that the appropriate conditions are met so that the bacteria can grow and form the cheese. However, centuries earlier, the reason that some milk became cheese and some spoiled was a mystery and the process was thought to be supernatural until a scientist was able to prove the existence of bacteria. Magic, therefore, is simply science we don’t yet understand.
I LOVE THAT CONCEPT. Jean-Paul is also impressed by this reasoning and is reassured by the priest’s conversation. But I LOVE that someone put this concept in a book about 20th century wine making.
I will warn you, because the content warning above doesn’t really do this justice, that there were several parts of this book that made me queasy. There is murder and kidnapping, some bargaining with demons and blood-magic, a toad graphically described shedding and eating its own skin, and (this is the part that really turned my stomach) the witch trials of Europe several centuries before this book takes place are described in rather horrific detail. The torture that accused witches endured in that time period was gruesome and cruel and I really shouldn’t have been eating while I read those scenes.
Anyway, The Vine Witch was beautifully written and, though a little slow in parts, it did suck me into the story and keep turning the page. I will definitely be on the lookout for more work from Smith.
What was the last debut novel that made you excited to see more from the author?