Content warnings: Contains scenes of BDSM, Blood, Grief, mentions of stalking, scenes of violence
My Rating: 4 books out of 5
- Korean main character
- Lesbian main character
- Discussion of kink with specific mention of aftercare
- The phrase ‘repto-mammalian sassery’
- Positive representation of sex workers
Café Amara is right next to a Starbucks, which sounds like horrible business practice— but that’s only if you don’t know its role as neutral ground for mages, monsters, and demons alike. First off, it’s right in the heart of civilian New York, so causing a disturbance would be bad exposure for everyone involved. Second, it’s owned by the estranged first son of the most powerful werewolf clan in the Northern Hemisphere. And no one wants to piss those guys off.
Harrietta Lee is a disgraced witch, she has a formal excommunication letter to prove it. But disgrace doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay bills, so she makes a living as a magical PI, finding lost objects and disposing of unwanted love spells. It’s hardly glamorous, but it (just about) covers New York rent.
Then, a member of a prominent magical family comes to her for help. A magical sword has gone missing, and if it isn’t found the entire family could be dead in days. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the family members was once a treasured friend. Before…well before Harry fucked everything up with demon blood.
I try to wait it out, and, in the process, finish my freezing tea. See, this is why I wish I were better at elementalism; pyrokinetics never worry about their tea going cold.
Stephanie Ahn has a wonderfully funny writing style. I famously have a mixed history with first person narratives, but it’s hard to imagine seeing Harry’s life through any eyes but her own. The ultimate disaster lesbian, Harry is incredibly self-aware of her tendency to make very bad decisions and has paid the price for them. Grief drove her to do something so incredibly, dangerously stupid that she almost died, she lost many of her friends as well as her mentor and suffered from mental health decline after the fact. Harry isn’t stupid, she’s traumatised and grieving…but also ocasionally quite dumb when the situation involves alcohol or pretty women. Hey, we’ve all been there.
“You wouldn’t have understood what I was saying before. Harnessing pain means feeling it, as you just saw. If you continue turning to pain as a method of generating power— which, by the gleam in your eye, I suspect you will— you’ll become used to opening up and accepting harm that comes your way. In other words, you’ll make yourself vulnerable. And if one day you are hurt, severely, you will lack the defenses most people have against physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Your only solution will be to wait out the suffering, see it through to the end, and hopefully pick up the pieces. It may consume you, at least temporarily. It may scar you permanently. But that is the price a blood witch pays.”
I thought the way Ahn describes and characterises magic was very interesting throughout the story. Witches have been sexualised since the beginning of time, so it only makes sense that some of that sexualisation could actually generate magic for them – at the very least, it’s a sustainable form of magic making. Harry is fairly open about her sadomasochism, so if you’re not a fan of pain-related content (specifically involving whips etc) this maybe isn’t the book for you. It isn’t just dumped into the story, however, it is part of Ahn’s magic-making lore – magic requires a physical and emotional response in the caster, and pain creates a response. There are two sides to every emotion, happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, and all if harnessed properly can be useful in a magical setting. I’ll be quite interested to see how the world-building expands throughout the series, certainly, and as this is a zero-shaming blog (unless it’s the shaming of terrible books or opinions, in which case there is shame aplenty) I included this in the content warnings only because I know it could be distressing or a hard nope for some readers.
Also we got representation of sex workers that was on the whole pretty positive, including a celibate succubus dominatrix, and a sex worker who is teaching herself programming:
“Did he happen to give you an address?”
Her eyes light up.
“Holy shit, I almost forgot!”
The cigarette drops from her lips— she catches it and tosses it into the ashtray within seconds. Then she twists around and hefts a heavy, hardcover textbook from the couch behind her. I sneak a peek at the cover before she opens it.
“Mm- hmm. I’ve wanted to learn programming since I was a kid. Wanted to make video games.” She chuckles a little to herself.
Overall I thought this book was funny, imaginative, diverse and unashamedly queer and I very much enjoyed reading it. I’ll be on the lookout for the next book for sure!