In The Vine Witch, Luanne G. Smith builds a magical alternate-universe turn-of-the-century France. The setting is very romantic, but also ambitious.
A young witch emerges from a curse to find her world upended in this gripping fantasy of betrayal, vengeance, and self-discovery set in turn-of-the-century France.
For centuries, the vineyards at Château Renard have depended on the talent of their vine witches, whose spells help create the world-renowned wine of the Chanceaux Valley. Then the skill of divining harvests fell into ruin when sorcière Elena Boureanu was blindsided by a curse. Now, after breaking the spell that confined her to the shallows of a marshland and weakened her magic, Elena is struggling to return to her former life. And the vineyard she was destined to inherit is now in the possession of a handsome stranger.
Vigneron Jean-Paul Martel naively favors science over superstition, and he certainly doesn’t endorse the locals’ belief in witches. But Elena knows a hex when she sees one, and the vineyard is covered in them. To stay on and help the vines ecover, she’ll have to hide her true identity, along with her plans for revenge against whoever stole seven winters of her life. And she won’t rest until she can defy the evil powers that are still a threat to herself, Jean-Paul, and the ancient vine-witch legacy in the rolling hills of the Chanceaux Valley.
Vintage magic at the turn of the century
Elena is a Vine Witch, apprenticed at a young age to Ariella Gardin, mistress of Château Renard. As the story opens, Elena is in the process of saving herself from a malicious toad transformation. It has been a long two years of fighting the curse placed upon her. A run-in with a local fox during her amphibious adventures has left lasting scars. She returns home to find the vineyard she loves has been sold and hexed. Gardin, the woman she calls Grand-Mère, has lost much of her magic ability to age and grief.
Jean-Paul, the new owner of the Château, is a thoroughly modern man. Born and educated in the city, he was a lawyer prior to purchasing the vineyard. Despite his romantic notion to run the business himself, he is a man of science. He is positive that with the right care and maintenance, he can restore Château Renard to its former glory. Without the superstitious nonsense his neighbours rely on.
An overzealous investigator accuses Elena of murdering her former fiancé. Inside the magically fortified prison, she makes allies with her cellmates. Jean-Paul uses his background as a lawyer to defend her. Separately, our two protagonists fight for Elena’s freedom and discover just who is responsible for the misery blighting the Château.
With a little help from a cheese-making priest, Smith’s world does come together in the end. Elena convinces Jean-Paul to allow her to help set the Château’s fields to rights.
Ambitious world building: magic, romance and revenge
What follows is a tale of magic, romance, and revenge. The combination is quite ambitious. Pastoral vineyards overseen by generations of witches rest alongside a magical bureaucracy and early motorcars. Smith has to tread lightly. It would be very easy to make comparisons to the Harry Potter universe, or C. L. Polk’s alternate-Edwardian Aeland.
Historically, France has been a dangerous place to display any ability not directly attributable to the Catholic faith. Many people died as a result of being labelled a heretic. Smith does nod at the bloody past. However, I felt it set up a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, witches are seen by the city-dwellers as superstitious folklore. On the other, there is apparently a judicial arm responsible for policing magic-users. If there is a government arm responsible for prosecuting magic-related crimes, how is it that a former practicing lawyer is unable to see the work done in the Vineyards as nothing more than quaint tradition?
There’s a particularly fun description of an especially stony garden pest that I’ll let the reader discover on their own. I honestly laughed out loud.
A fast but not entirely fluffy read
I’ll give this book a solid 4/5. Once I got past the main introductions, I had a hard time stopping long enough to make notes. It’s a fairly fast read that should appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
There is some mild body horror at the beginning of the book. Some might find it a turn-off. I found it helped solidify the stakes right from the beginning. This isn’t a light and fluffy world; Smith’s world is a gritty, earthy place. You must tread carefully or be fatally cursed.
TL;DR A gritty fantasy, a sweet romance, and a fast-paced story of magic wine and the witches who make it.
The Vine Witch (Vine Witch, #1) by Luanne G. Smith
Published by 47North
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Horror
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I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.