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Book Review: The Water Witch

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The Water Witch, Juliet Dark, Ballantine, 2013, $15
  • The Water Witch, Juliet Dark, Ballantine, 2013, $15

Everybody knows academia is a bit nuts, and the Catskills a bit enchanted. The misadventures of Callie McFay blend these two ingredients into a yummy confection in the hands of Juliet Dark, the pseudonymous lighter side of acclaimed author Carol Goodman.

In The Demon Lover, readers met Callie as she signed on as a faculty member at Fairwick College and slowly came to realize that she was surrounded by supernatural creatures of all sorts, including the titular incubus who fell madly in love with her, allowing Goodman to unleash her own considerable talents as a writer of erotica. Water Witch picks up where The Demon Lover left off: Callie has reluctantly banished her supercharged lover and is striving to get a handle on her own powers.

It's not as though life gives her the opportunity to do so at leisure. There's a plot concocted by the extremely staid and snobbish witches' society to cut the connection between the village of Fairwick and the netherworld of Faerie, putting Callie's friends and colleagues at risk. There are ongoing situations that require her to use her magical gifts before she's fully versed in how they work. And last but not least, she's torn between trying to be grateful that she rid herself of that pesky incubus (or did she?) and missing the best soul mate she's ever had.

It's a lot of fun hanging with Callie as she rises to the occasion of one magical crisis after the other. Freeing the Undines, shape-shifting into an owl, studying up on correlative spells, learning to cope with the Botox-like powers of Aelvesgold, facing down snooty witches, or just handling the labyrinthine interpersonal politics of a small Catskills college town during fishing season, she is spunky and bold as she adapts to the magical realities surrounding her.

Goodman/Dark has an exquisite and clear voice that makes reading her prose a delicious mind massage; even in this sassier persona, one is aware of being in the hands of a mistress of the fine arts of storytelling and characterization. Those who haven't read The Demon Lover first may feel a bit overwhelmed at the outset, as Water Witch plunges us straight into the otherworldly goings-on around Fairwick and only gradually fills in the back story, but the liveliness and music of the tale weave their own enchantment. Passages such as "Maria was a liderc—a life-sucking bird monster—who had masqueraded as my student" may be a bit much to take in, but then, it's been a lot for Callie to take in too, and she's coping admirably.

The juxtaposition of post-hippie small-town life and ancient magical realities makes Fairwick at once familiar (at least for those who've spent time in the Catskills) and deliciously exotic. The embattled love story rings true, and the persecution by a witches' society that's reminiscent of a particularly rigid chapter of the DAR adds a subtle political flavor, never overplayed.

Mostly, it's all just great fun. Will Callie and her cohorts succeed in keeping the Door between the worlds open? Will there be a reunion between Callie and her beloved carnal spirit, and would that be a good thing, or a lethal thing? Readers who enjoy a good romp (and the romps are first-rate) will be glad to see that "Juliet Dark" has already scheduled a third semester at Fairwick.

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