REVIEW: The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling (aka Rachel Hawkins)
Nine years ago, Vivienne Jones nursed her broken heart like any young witch would: vodka, weepy music, bubble baths…and a curse on the horrible boyfriend. Sure, Vivi knows she shouldn’t use her magic this way, but with only an “orchard hayride” scented candle on hand, she isn’t worried it will cause him anything more than a bad hair day or two.
That is until Rhys Penhallow, descendent of the town’s ancestors, breaker of hearts, and annoyingly just as gorgeous as he always was, returns to Graves Glen, Georgia. What should be a quick trip to recharge the town’s ley lines and make an appearance at the annual fall festival turns disastrously wrong. With one calamity after another striking Rhys, Vivi realizes her silly little Ex Hex may not have been so harmless after all.
Suddenly, Graves Glen is under attack from murderous wind-up toys, a pissed off ghost, and a talking cat with some interesting things to say. Vivi and Rhys have to ignore their off the charts chemistry to work together to save the town and find a way to break the break-up curse before it’s too late.
Dear Ms. Sterling,
I guess the cartoon cover and the blurb really did their job and lured me into asking to read this arc. The start is a lot of fun and proves what Vivienne’s aunt always swears – never mix vodka and witchcraft. In the intervening nine years, neither Rhys nor Vivienne have forgotten those lovely three months they spent together in a haze of love and smoking hot sex before Rhys announced that he had to go home in order to put the kibosh on the betrothal his father was arranging for him. Vivienne, as would be expected, didn’t take this well which led to the cursing.
Unfortunately Vivienne and her cousin Gwyn don’t actually realize what they’d done was a lot more powerful than they expected until the shit hits the fan when cursee Rhys returns to the town his ancestor helped found because of the powerful ley lines which he either realized were there or actually created. I was confused about this as I thought ley lines already “existed” and weren’t things that were created. But I digress.
After Rhys tries to strengthen the ley lines (which apparently need a touch up every now and then which must be done by one of the Penhallow family) things go tits up. Suddenly this town that was founded by a witch and which has a college that (somehow) manages to have both witch and non-witch students and (somehow, mainly) manages to keep the non-witches from knowing about the witchy stuff for most of the years the college has existed (yeah, whatever, I’ll buy into it because you say so) has magic zinging around. Deep magic, strong magic, rank magic that gets real in a damn hurry.
After the initial explosive display of the effects of the rank magic, Rhys manages to help Gwyn and Vivienne cover up evidence of this from the mortal customers in Aunt Elaine’s shop but it’s soon evident (Kinda, maybe. We’re told that it is) that this curse could be a lot more dangerous than anyone expected. Can they undo it and fix the other unintended disastrous results?
The effects of the curse are clearly bigger than Gwyn, Vivienne, Aunt Elaine, and Rhys realize but I wondered why they’d think things wouldn’t be bad all over town? The original curse had fritzed Rhy’s magic in town but the ley line debacle quickly set off things in town for Gwyn, Vivienne and Auntie Elaine. So why wouldn’t other witches be affected? Oh wait, they sort of are but nothing to the extent that Vivi’s family was, apparently, though little is said about this and after a while it doesn’t seem to matter. Nah, Vivi, Rhys, and Gwyn will just get a good night sleep then deal with it in the morning.
The family doesn’t relish the thought of asking anyone else for help. Hello?! They’re in a town with a college of witchcraft with witch professors so why not seek any assistance they can get as things progressively go haywire?? Sorry but Vivi’s family’s “they’re snobs” excuse doesn’t cut it with me. And even when other witches seem to finally notice the problems like the shrieking vengeful ghost in the library, all that the head of the college says is “fix this.” No “can we help?” or “have you got any clues as to how to clean up the shit show you’ve created?” Reason?? Rhys actually has cause not to correct his father’s (who has a well known temper) impression that anything is wrong but with a local source of assistance there, why not make use of it?
The romance worked slightly better for me. Vivienne doesn’t spend every waking moment of the last nine years fixated on how Rhys done her wrong and he realizes that he was a wanker in how he handled letting Vivienne know about what his father was doing. She even abandons him by the side of the road his first night back in town. Vivienne has excelled in her profession (never cheat in her class or turn in a plagiarized paper because, by its screaming, she’ll know). Rhys has started a successful business. Neither is languishing over the other though there are happy and hot memories for both of them.
I also liked that they pay attention to each other. Vivienne internally confronts beliefs she carried which she now realizes might not be correct when she sees that some of Rhy’s casual quippiness might be to cover deeper feelings and wonders if he’s always been this way and she missed it. Rhys is horrified to learn that Vivienne was more emotionally wounded by what happened nine years ago than he thought. Their current bantering was fun and felt as if they shared equal agency but at times Vivi (who hides her witchness) was a bit bland (compared to her vibrant cousin) and Rhys’s depths were not plumbed.
But what I didn’t like was that Rhys and Vivi’s improving relationship leads them to become fuckbuddies for a week – albeit they claim to still be doing some research on the curse – but mainly fucking like bunnies. It takes an outside character blowing into town with frosty anger at how much time has been wasted for our little fuckrabbits to sheepishly admit that they should have been concentrating on fixing the frickn’ curse. Even when they’re tracking down something important that Vivi’s stupidity lost them, Rhys still can’t help himself from doing a wink-wink-nudge-nudge suggestion that they find a room instead of figuring out how this important item can help.
Separately, some of both parts of this book actually worked for me. The magic stuff at the beginning was fun. The initial worry after the ley lines got borked was concerning. The chemistry of Rhys and Vivi’s past, present, and growing relationship felt hot yet also emotional. Combining the two, however, didn’t go well. It was like someone learning to drive a stick shift car. The magic plot would rev up then stall into the romance, race then stall, jerk forward then stall. Or it could be looked at the other way with the progression of the romance stalling into the magic. I got bewildered about whether the out of control magic was actually anything to be worried about because the characters were frankly blasé about it most of the time. Until something would happen and then it would be discussed a bit only to be ignored again for some hot boinking. Even the promised talking cat with some interesting things to say was a bust because instead of helping them uncover ways to undo the curse (honestly, no witch has a clue how to do this??) mostly all he did was whine for treatstreatstreatstreats.
The consistency and logic of the world that was built was also shaky. I’ve said before that cute cartoon cover romcom books with happy sounding blurbs that wind up delving into deeper subjects and emotions often annoy me but for once, I actually wanted deeper. I needed it here because the balance between the fluffy stuff and the danger of the curse wasn’t equal. Had the curse only caused small plastic Halloween skulls to come to life and chase people across a store or equally silly things, then okay. But that’s not how it was presented or (when they bothered to think about it) Vivi and Rhys viewed it. When fixing the curse was finally front and center of the action, it was too much too late but then solved too easily. I really wanted to enjoy this but the inconsistencies pulled it apart and did it no favors. C