Secondhand Spirits is the first in the WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES series by Juliet Blackwell. The series centers on Lily Ivory, a natural witch who has traveled the world looking for a place to belong, and finds it in the eccentric Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. She owns a vintage clothing shop, and her magical abilities help her in her business by allowing her to sense something of the history of a garment and thereby match it with the right customer. In Secondhand Spirits, Lily purchases a hoard of clothing from an old woman, Frances Potts, and soon becomes embroiled in a mystery involving Mrs. Potts, a missing child, and the eerie legend of La Llorona. Lily risks her new-found acceptance and security by using her witchcraft to try to save the day.
Juliet Blackwell has done her research into witchcraft, both the Wiccan sort and the folkloric variety that was so feared in the Middle Ages. Both of them exist here. Lily, as a natural witch, has power beyond that of ordinary humans and possesses the traits witches were once rumored to have; for example, she can’t cry. Her friend Bronwyn is a Wiccan witch, who worships the Goddess and follows Wiccan principles but is much more limited in her power. The spells in the book are based on real practices from history and from the present day.
Secondhand Spirits gets off to a bit of a slow start; the early chapters spend a lot of time establishing Lily’s character and the way her magic works, and fleshing out the neighborhood and the ambiance of Lily’s shop. This is both a positive and a negative. It does slow the story down somewhat, but it’s also quite charming and gives us something to come back for in future books. If you read a lot of cozy mysteries, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon: it’s the mystery itself that keeps you turning pages in each individual book, but likable characters and a memorable setting are what keep you coming back to the same series next time you want a mystery fix. When the mystery does get rolling, it’s both spooky and poignant — though there’s one aspect of it that’s far too easy to guess because someone’s name is too obvious. There’s a hint of romance, too, or at least potential for future romance. Lily meets two intriguing men, one of whom she’s not sure is trustworthy and the other of whom thinks witchcraft is bunk; sparks fly. I’m especially fond of the mythbuster…
If Secondhand Spirits sounds appealing to you, you can’t go wrong with Tantor Audio’s production, narrated by Xe Sands. Sands has a smooth, compelling voice that seems to curl around you as she speaks, or that makes you want to curl up for storytime. For Lily, born in Texas, she has a slight Southern accent that is just enough to notice without being distracting from the story. Her secondary-character voices are terrific too; I should especially mention how funny she is in her portrayal of the gushing Bronwyn, and how utterly adorable she makes Lily’s familiar, Oscar. If you like cozy mysteries with a magical twist — Shirley Damsgaard’s OPHELIA AND ABBY, for example — Juliet Blackwell’s WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES are definitely worth your time. This first book has a few flaws but is a great deal of fun and I’ll definitely be back for more.