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REVIEW: Herb Witch by Elizabeth McCoy

Dear Ms. McCoy:

This book came highly recommended from Reader Shana. It is a fantasy story set in some land with detailed and intricate world building. What’s even better is that there is a strong romance underpinning to the story. Unfortunately, I am not the right type of reader for this book. I find this to be true for most of my reactions to fantasy stories. I like things to happen in my books and this book is more about building the world than providing any forward movement.  I’m convinced that this is an “it’s not you, it’s me” function. I can’t even judge it properly because as a fantasy story, it might suit readers wonderfully but very little of the story worked for me.

The Herb Witch Elizabeth McCoyKessa Herbsman is a half barbarian herbalist in a horse and carriage. She ekes out a small living selling herbal cures to the lower classes.  Her hair is dark and her eyes are so strange that she cannot look anyone in the eye without them recoiling.  Her family are the other children with whom she was raised in a creche.  Laita, the frail but beautiful girl who sells herself; Jontho, Burk, and Tag.  Most of her money and efforts go toward feeding and trying to cure Laita of whatever ailment she may have.

Kessa is arrested and accused of mixing a potion that resulted in a local moneylender going mad.  When the Lord Alchemist, head of her guild and current ruler and minor baron, comes to administer a truth potion, he discovers she is immune and immediately proposes.

Even more softly, he said, “You’ve an alchemist’s immunity.”

Well. And is that what it’s called? How strange, that it had a name. How strange, that others might have it. Her world spun, her secret somehow smaller and greater at the same time.

As if he spoke of the weather, he added, “That’s a proposal.”

 

Ianthor proposes because he wishes for an immune son.  In the land where they live, individuals of lower castes are required to imbibe a draught.  The loyalty potion, known as the dramsman’s drought, binds the drinker to the first person that is seen after the draught is taken.  A person with an immunity to all achelmic potions is rare. Only Ianthor and his brother, Iasen, are known to have it and only an immune can be the Lord Alchemist.  Currently Iasen is Ianthor’s heir and Iasen purportedly does not want this position, choosing to squander his life and skill.  Ianthor is the opposite. He is steady and feels his responsibilities keenly.  He does not like loyalty potions and helped to develop a new one that gives the drinker more latitude.  He is careful not to order his dramsman but instead provides suggestions and renders requests so that the people that serve him do so out of their own free will.  He is a true romantic because he wants an immune wife, not just to have an immune son, but to have a wife that loves him and that is not bound to him by some potion.

And Iasen asks why I don’t just pick some girl with tolerances. Bad enough there’s need for my servants to be dramsmen, sacrosanct from threats because nothing can break their loyalty. But to make a dramswife to share my life and bed, and never again know if her agreements were true or potion-wrought?

Kessa is afraid and angered by this proposal and unfortunately her response was the biggest problem in this book. I never understood Kessa’s extreme fear of Ianthor, the Lord Alchemist. There is no question that his proposal was boorish (not to mention incomprehensible for this reader) but the fear and mistrust she exhibited seemed extreme in comparison to Ianthor’s behavior. The book drags on as Kessa first rejects the proposal but also rejects Ianthor’s offer to teach her alchemy.  She knows only herb witchery.  She views him so suspiciously that he cannot provide her with food or a blanket without Kessa believing that she is in mortal danger from him.  There is some suspicion that Ianthor might be visiting a couple of the more seedy brothels in town but there just wasn’t anything dangerous or unlikeable about Ianthor.

Kessa is described as half barbarian.  She is often looking at people through her curtain of hair.  Her eyes were apparently so horrible that no one could bear to look at them without flinching.  I did not understand why her eyes caused such an extreme reaction. They were described as a mixture of vomit and dung, but unless they were red, burning alien orbs, I needed some better explanation why the people of her land were so taken aback by the sight of them.

What I found ironic is that while there are no initial info dumps, the story gives half looks and allusions to what might be going on for several chapters and then we are treated to longish monologuing info dumps to explain what was alluded to in the five previous chapters. I found this incredibly frustrating because I was reading so slowly to try to comprehend the world only to have the characters blurt out what took five chapters to explain.

I also wondered about the racial implications of this book. Kessa is described as dark skinned, dark coarse hair, and dark eyes; yet on the cover is like a dark haired white girl.

The setup is quite interesting.  A man wants an immune free woman. She is distrustful of him. In the meantime, she hides something from him which makes him suspicious.  The conflict that made sense was that Kessa did not want to be with a man who wanted just because she was immune, but given Kessa’s current situation: her poverty, her family’s need for help, and her desire to learn alchemy, the protracted distance between the two was tiresome.  Further, Kessa jumps to negative conclusions non stop.  If anything negative ever happened to her, it was invariably Ianthor’s fault.

Finally, there seemed to be some strange affection for Kessa’s “moon’s blood.”  Nine chapters in, we are introduced to Kessa’s “dried maiden’s blood” which is kept in a bowl in her shop.  At chapter 25 (which is about 50% into the book) Ianthor arrives at Kessa’s shop only to find Kessa sickening.  Quickly he discovers Kessa is suffering from “moon-brought bleeding” based on the smell of her blood and vomit in the air.  We learn that Kessa collects her maiden’s blood and dries it out to make a contraceptive that she sells:

Maiden’s blood – traditionally moon-blood – preserved with boiled brine-salt and flaxseed oil, dried to black and cracking flakes and ground to powder with laceburrs. The result was used to smoke tea leaves, mint leaves, or rose petals. Dry tea, that women drank to keep from conceiving. Add cotton seeds instead of laceburrs, and it was men’s tea, blighting the seed for two or three days after a single strong-brewed cup.

In the glossary, apparently this contraceptive can be made from a cut but Kessa collects her blood the traditional way. In a bowl.  At one point, the added description is given of Kessa’s legs being numb from crouching over her collection bowl.  The arc regarding Kessa’s moon’s blood continues throughout the book:

Sitting back down would be good, for her belly still ached and she was already angry that their truce was going to break – but sitting on cotton padding was lumpy and she sometimes worried that it might be enough to reduce her blood’s purity.

What was with all the references to the maiden’s blood and the curative created from it? While Kessa’s status as a maiden was briefly brought into issue, it wasn’t an important plot point and neither was the issue of contraceptive.  The non stop references to Kessa’s menstruation cycle seemed bizarre.  The ending of this book is a bit of a cliffhanger and I started with Herb Wife, the sequel.  Sure enough, the second paragraph refers to Kessa’s moon’s blood. It seemed like the longest period ever.  I haven’t decided whether I will read the Herb Wife but I’m leaning toward  ‘not for a while.’   C

Best regards,

Jane

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

19 Comments

  1. Cara
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 10:47:57

    I’ve had a similar problem before. I picked up an ARC of a book that was listed as a romance, and it very clearly was a fantasy with maybe eventual romantic elements. I just couldn’t rate it.

  2. KMont
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 11:21:37

    OK, the concept for the world and plot premise sounds interesting. I was thinking through your review that maybe this could be for me since I do love fantasy. Until I got to your points on the heroine’s nonstop negative conclusion jumping. That sort of thing drives me batty in romance reading. Also, her moon’s blood thing? Bizarre indeed if there seemed to be no point to it.

  3. Twila Price
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 11:50:08

    Interesting. I’ve read McCoy’s work in other contexts (she writes rpg game supplements for Steve Jackson Games, which are usually quirky and funny and very intelligent, and she participates in several online forums that I frequent), so I will probably pick up the first book, just to see how her fiction strikes me. I’d expect it to be smoother than you found it, actually. Her world-building in her game books is usually quite well-done and without info-dumps.

  4. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 16:59:23

    Thanks for the review! (I could try to explain what I was aiming for on some of it — but that’s always a bad authorial habit. Best to make notes for the future and move on, and only natter to people who actually seek out such natterings.)

  5. Dabney
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 18:08:55

    @Elizabeth McCoy: If there was a like button on DA, I’d push it for your elegant response!

  6. Jane
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 18:11:42

    @Elizabeth McCoy: I’d be interested in hearing your audience for the book. As I said in my review, the book’s problems was likely more of a reflection on me as a reader. I would be curious about the focus on the moon’s blood issue. Did I miss its significance?

  7. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 19:12:02

    I suspect my audience is more straight fantasy-readers than romance-readers, yes — or at least people who tend to read both equally and are invested in the world-building aspects as much as the relationship ones. The beta-readers who were most enthusiastic are almost certainly fantasy or reads-both-equally fans.

    The moonblood aspect was meant to do… a lot of things, really. The most trivial part is, “Write what you know,” and yes, ibuprofen is my best friend forever. Another aspect is pure world-building, to try to “ground” the magic system in both symbolism[*] and “earthy,” messy things; it’s not a universe that ignores all the dirt. (Though I did at least make it part of the recipe that’s burnt, with the resulting smoke residue on tea leaves being the final contraceptive.) On the relationship side, it’s a chance for Iathor to “save” Kessa when her defenses are down enough to accept it. (Stars know the poor man has few enough chances to be a hero.) It’s also the Clue that Kessa spots in the very end, that someone is lying about something he should know — and in the second book, it’s part of the Final Explanations that lead to the HEA.

    On the personality front… It’s probably over-subtle and I should have emphasized parts of it more; the trivial part is that it’s one of the ways Kessa defines herself. I can go into the deeper psychological significance if you want, but I really don’t want to sound like an author wailing, “But you don’t understaaaaaaaaaand!”

    [* In a mix of Sympathetic and Contagious magic, maiden's blood, especially from the "nope, no pregnancy here" menstrual blood, is the ingredient that fools the taker's body into going, "Nope, no chance of pregnancy here. Never met a male gamete in my life." My spouse, science-fiction steeped as he is, prefers the technobabble phrase of "quantum entanglement."]

  8. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 19:55:12

    (PS: Dabney, thank you!)

  9. Dabney
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 20:47:10

    @Elizabeth McCoy: I’m filled with admiration for your explanations and your generosity. It’s hard being a reviewer–we love writers so much for giving us all this great entertainment and yet regularly we trounce it. I try and be as fair as possible in my reviews. It’s great to read an author’s response such as yours that opens a dialogue about the book. The ultimate goal is to connect readers with books they will love–the kind of conversation going on is this thread furthers that aim.

  10. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 21:15:57

    @Dabney: A fair review, no matter what the ultimate grade/stars, is really the best thing an author can hope for. It points at things that one can hopefully fix in future stories, and even more… Well, as you say, the ultimate goal is to connect readers to the books they’ll love — and warn readers away from books they’d dislike. I’d rather have a no-buy, or a return, than someone feeling resentful that they’d picked up something that was just not their cup of tea.

    (Which is one reason why I set sampling to 50% on Smashwords, to hopefully give a good idea of whether someone would like it or not.)

  11. Susan
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 21:22:49

    Great review and interesting points raised. I read this book and The Herb-Wife last week and enjoyed both.

    For me, there were also a few issues, such as a problem with pacing. I understand the two books were originally part of a much longer tale that was considerably shortened. Perhaps as a result of that editing, some scenes seemed to be very looong and others, in comparison, quite short. And, yes, Kessa was negative about almost everything, but that was part of her character/background and I understood it more as the two books developed. But one of my biggest hangups was that the mystery wasn’t much of a mystery at all. There was no doubt at all who the “bad guy” was. If there was any mystery at all it would probably be that I never did fully understand his motive or the reason for his intense emotional response to Kessa (more so than others’) and what she stood for.

    Whew. But, despite that, I thought the books worked. (I say books because the first one really is incomplete without the second.) I particularly loved the world- and character building. The setting was complete and believable. I definitely think there’s room for more stories set in this world. I’d like to know what happens with Kessa and Ianthor. And–SPOILER–their half-barbarian children. Further, just who are the barbarians, where are they from, what’s the rest of their backstory, etc? And Kessa’s extended “family.” Seems like a lot more territory that could be covered. And I’m up for it.

    I’d definitely recommend the books–but maybe to readers further on the fantasy end of the spectrum than the romance end.

  12. Jane
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 21:24:34

    @Elizabeth McCoy – I think my biggest struggle with the book was figuring out the markers or boundaries. I.e., I knew barbarians were considered bad but I didn’t really understand why. I knew there was a caste system in place, but I didn’t understand where everyone fell on the societal scale and how, if in any way, that affected their ability to move within their world. The Lord Alchemist was a minor baron, often known as Sir but also as Lord. I think there was even a prince of the city. Who ruled and in what capacity? The importance of the dramsman and Ianthor’s desperate desire for an immune heir was explained about 40% in even though it was part of the blurb. I wished those things would have been revealed earlier on so I could have invested more in the plot line.

    I wasn’t sure why Ianthor was so convinced that he needed an immune wife to gain an immune son. His mother was not immune but rather a woman of high tolerance and she had two immune sons.

    I do appreciate you coming and sharing your thoughts with us. I think that it can help readers discern whether this book is for them. And frankly, your graciousness makes me want to buy a copy just to support you. So thank you for being generous enough in your spirit to come and discuss your book here.

  13. Susan
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 21:34:52

    BTW, the cover illustrations struck me as being pretty accurate according to the way I read the stories/descriptions. Kessa is described as having dark skin, but I got the impression that it was more in the vein of a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/Native American level of intensity, rather than an African skin tone. Her features were sharpish, and her hair straight and dark. Her eyes were a yellowish brown. (I agree that I don’t understand why this combination, especially the eyes, was deemed so hideous and repulsive.) This was in contrast to the “non-barbarians” who seemed to have northern-European coloring–very pale skin, light hair colors, blue/green/violet eyes–all of which could be alchemically-enhanced. Of course, I could be mis-remembering since it was a week or so ago and my memory is fleeting these days.

    Sorry to be so long-winded! I didn’t mean to write TWO saga-length posts. :-)

  14. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 21:58:59

    @Jane: Hm! I have a somewhat annoying suspicion that Susan is right: the original draft was… rather a bit longer than it needed to be. Taking a well-deserved machete to it may have dropped out some explanations when the scene as a whole didn’t add enough to survive, and left me relying on deep-fantasy tropes more than I should’ve in some places.

    (Which is to say… if you want, I’ll be happy to elaborate on the world-setting! But I don’t want to natter on without being sure. Loving one’s world too well is an authorial vice.)

    And, please, don’t worry about buying a copy! It’s wonderful to get a review at all. (But if I publish something in the future that might be more your cup of tea, may I submit it? I promise to be extra-careful in considering whether it is more likely to be a match — and understand if you’d rather not humor the same author overmuch!)

    @Susan: Thank you! (You’ll be happy to know that I’ve got both a prequel Iathor short story and a sequel novel (featuring one of those Spoilers you mention) that need covers, and am partway into another sequel (about the other of those Spoilers). But if I’m going to try to make them at least somewhat stand-alone, I’m going to need to pay attention to the cues and where I place them. And… I’m going to keep myself from babbling too much here. Please feel free to poke me on any of my blogs if you want me to keep babbling! *grin*)

  15. Susan
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 22:01:54

    @Jane: OK, I promise this is the last time. (I also promise that I don’t know the author personally.) :-)

    “I wasn’t sure why Ianthor was so convinced that he needed an immune wife to gain an immune son. His mother was not immune but rather a woman of high tolerance and she had two immune sons.”

    I was going to write a big, long explanation for this, but I’m sure neither you nor the author would thank me for it. I’ll just say that a lot of questions and open issues are addressed in the sequel. Maybe sooner would have been better. These are definitely not standalone books; they’re probably better viewed as Parts I and II.

    I guess I liked the books even better than I thought to get this impassioned. Thanks for bearing with me.

  16. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 22:02:29

    @Susan: And posts cross in the night! Yes, you are exactly correct about the coloration of everyone — and about the alchemical enhancement (or alchemical causation) of “desired” coloration.

  17. Susan
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 22:06:11

    @Elizabeth McCoy: Thanks for your kindness. . . and bravery. I already feel like a nut-job stalker for my repeated postings here!

  18. Elizabeth McCoy
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 22:16:11

    @Susan: Don’t worry! So long as you don’t peek in the windows (the house is a mess…), I think we’re fine. I’m really delighted that you like the books!

  19. Estara
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 17:00:32

    The review, the discussion that followed and the fact that these are available on Smashwords have made me put this on my firm TBB list. And I will keep in mind that both books are necessary for the full experience.

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