Book Review: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Vine Witch
Publisher: 47North (October 1, 2019)
Length: 263 pages
The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith was a charming book—sure, not one that would likely linger too long in your mind or make an in indelible impression, but it was by no means a bad read. While the publisher blurb doesn’t reveal much about the story, I was intrigued by the setting of a vineyard nestled in the historical French countryside, as well as the idea of vine witches whose powers enable them to create the richest and most complex wines.
The book opens on the Chanceaux Valley, home to the Chateau Renard vineyard where our protagonist Elena Bourneanu lived with an old woman she calls her Grand-Mere. The Chateau has long been known for its remarkable, full-bodied wines and the secret to its success is Elena, a vine witch who users her spells to enhance the winemaking process. But prior to the story’s start, Elena ran afoul of a curse and had been transformed into a toad, leading to the ruin of Chateau Renard now that it was bereft of her magic.
Years later, Elena was able to return to her body, albeit with weakened powers. When she returns to the Chateau, however, she is dismayed to discover that Grand-Mere had sold it in her absence, and the vineyard now belongs to a handsome stranger named Jean-Paul Martel. Without Elena, the quality of the wine had gone down, yet to her frustration, Jean-Paul, who doesn’t believe in village superstition, refuses to allow her to use magic to restore it. But Elena knows something more is afoot, and recognizes a hex when she sees one, she’s also pretty sure she knows who was behind the curse that stole seven years of her life. But between hiding her identity and planning her revenge, Elena has plenty on her mind and did not foresee being a target of the anti-witch movement, nor did she expect that she and Jean-Paul would grow closer and develop feelings for each other.
The Vine Witch was good entertainment, though I have to say, I think I expected more. By that, I mean everything from the story to the world-building and the characters were too lightly sketched, and I chalk this up to this being the author’s debut, because it has all the telltale signs. Certainly the passion is there, but at times the prose was overly purple, trivial details were heavily described while more important elements were neglected, and there were paragraphs where lot was given when only a little was demanded so that the words practically tripped over themselves. A perfect example of this is the setting. Smith never really managed to establish a solid sense of the place, even though there were plenty of opportunities to do so. The culture and atmosphere of Chanceaux Valley only started to materialize late in the game, hence prior to that, I had only with the publisher’s description of turn-of-the-century France to point me in the right direction and help me imagine the context.
The same goes for the characters, who were relatable and interesting enough, but were still hard to pin down. I wanted more out of Elena’s personality and voice, especially given what was done to her, and yet those aspects of her character came across as somewhat distant and artificial. Speaking of which, the romance also felt forced, like everything between Elena and Jean-Paul was meant to be a foregone conclusion anyway, so why not just drop all pretenses and go through the motions. As you can imagine, that had a way of sapping all the anticipation and life out of the relationship.
Despite all my criticisms though, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Vine Witch. Although I had expected more from it, I also realize and appreciate the fact that it is a debut, and I think in spite of a few hiccups here and there, Luanne G. Smith has delivered an impressive historical fantasy with a solid premise. This book was also a quick read and could have used some polishing in places and beefing up in others, but I like to think just a teensy little bit more tweaking would have gotten the plot and character development to a good place. Quite honestly, the only thing missing was a little oomph, that extra secret ingredient to make the book more consequential and memorable, which I believe only comes with experience and more writing. Hence if Smith continues upon this path of growth, I definitely look forward to checking out she writes next.