The Witches of Echo Park: Complex, surprising, restrained

The Witches of Echo Park by Amber BensonThe Witches of Echo Park by Amber BensonThe Witches of Echo Park by Amber Benson

The Witches of Echo Park (2015) is a book that kind of has me stumped. The publisher sent me this first book in the series along with the second book. I read this one, and I’ve just kind of sat on it, wondering what to say about it. On the one hand, I loved it. It’s a unique, well written spin on what could easily have been a completely typical urban fantasy. On the other hand, I spent a good chunk of the book waiting for something to happen.

I loved the writing style. Benson has a high quality writing that felt both restrained, and lyrical. That really stuck out to me. Most (not all) urban fantasy I run across is written a lot more straightforward, with a fast moving plot and punchy dialogue. This book is written in such a way that makes you pay attention, and there are details everywhere. Benson really put a lot of effort into writing this novel and ensuring that every single detail, every minute point was mentioned for her readers. That might be overwhelming for some readers, but for those who enjoy the minutiae, like myself, you’ll dig it.

This has the added benefit of making her world really come to blazing life. Not only Lyse, and her cohorts, but the city of Los Angeles as well. It’s a city I’ve never been to, and I’ve only seen the common images that most everyone has seen on the news, but Benson made LA appear far different, far more homey than the large, sprawling metropolis that it really is.

Mixed into this is a magic system that is, on the surface, exactly what you’d expect it to be. There are witches, and the witches have spells and skills, and agendas. It’s all there. And thrown into the middle of it all is Lyse, who has no idea that magic is real, and that witches are just as real. And my first thought when I saw this plot developing was, “Fantastic. Another book about a girl learning her true nature.”

Benson manages to avoid many of the pitfalls I expected her to fall into. The aha moments were genuine. The discovery – both of self and the true nature of the world itself – was complex and believable. Nothing felt really campy, and nothing felt too predictable. Lyse was delightfully ignorant, and her reactions were fantastically real.

The Witches of Echo Park by Amber BensonSo, there was a lot here to love. However, on the flip side, have you ever read a fairly short book that felt like it was about a thousand pages long? That’s how this one felt. That sounds horrible, but it’s true. I sat down to read The Witches of Echo Park, and I can generally burn through a book that size in a day without any problems at all. This one took me about a week to get through. And the thing is, it didn’t take me that long because I disliked it. I actually really, really enjoyed this book and just about everything about it. What took me so long was the pacing. For example, early on things are being organized so the coven can meet Lyse. I thought this would be a jumping off point for the rest of the novel. Instead, that whole event didn’t actually take place until the halfway point, and the time before then is spent jumping from character to character to establish stories, details and whatever else.

There is some intrigue, plenty of plot twists, but it is the first half of the book that felt like it took so long. The second half is where the story has been established and things get going, but you have to put in some time and effort to get to the point where things take off. That being said, the ending was well done, and the culmination of events left me hungry for the next book, but that restrained pacing almost did me in.

And the benefit of all those details, and all that restrained pacing and attention to just about everything (even things you wouldn’t imagine are important) was a second half of a novel that impressed the hell out of me. It also makes me think that the second book in the series might be far different than the first, as just about everything that could be established, has already been done. I am excited to give the next book a read and see if it’s more plot, more action, more motion forward and less restrained, controlled pacing. I want to see what an author as talented as Bensen can do when she really just lets go, and goes wild.

So, The Witches of Echo Park was complex, surprising, and restrained.

Published in 2015. Unbeknownst to most of humankind, a powerful network of witches thrives within the shadows of society, using their magic to keep the world in balance. But they are being eliminated—and we will all pay if their power falls… When Lyse MacAllister’s great-aunt Eleanora, the woman who raised her, becomes deathly ill, Lyse puts her comfortable life in Georgia on hold to rush back to Los Angeles. And once she returns to Echo Park, Lyse discovers her great-aunt has been keeping secrets—extraordinary secrets—from her. Not only is Lyse heir to Eleanora’s Victorian estate; she is also expected to take her great-aunt’s place in the Echo Park coven of witches. But to accept her destiny means to place herself in deadly peril—for the world of magic is under siege, and the battle the witches now fight may be their last…

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SARAH CHORN, one of our regular guest reviewers, has been a compulsive reader her whole life, and early on found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a published photographer, world traveler and recent college graduate and mother. Sarah keeps a blog at Bookworm Blues.

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