Title: The Vine Witch
Author: Luanne G. Smith
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance, Magical Realism.
What It’s About: A Toad eats a moth, and makes a mental note that they should never eat a moth again because of its wings. The Toad has to shed its own skin, and begins to eat the skin, suddenly transforming into a woman, who remembers her name as Elena. She makes her way back home to the Chateau she once grew up on, wearing a Goatherd’s clothing, and finds her Grand-Mere, who actually is not her grandmother, but a woman who took her in once she lost her parents. As she approaches the Chateau, she notices a man working on the fields, and asks him if Ariella still lives there, and he confirms that she is one if the occupants of the house. She warns him to use coals to keep the fire going as the snow will come, and then walks off towards the house to find Grand Mere, who she finds in the kitchen.
The two women catch up, and Elena finds out that she has been gone for seven years, then she regals Grand-Mere with what really happened to her–she was cursed to be a toad by some witch, that she assumes was sent by Bastien, her ex-fiance who had wanted her to curse all the other vineyards in the valley so that he could be the best vingneron in the valley. The man she met out on the field comes in and introduces himself as Jean-Paul Martel, the owner of the vineyard of Chateau Renard where Elena had been promised as a vine witched. Grand-Mere had explained that she had to sell the building and the vineyard because she had mismanaged money and he had been so gracious as to let her live with him in the house.
As Elena and Grand-mere explore the vineyard over the course of the following days, Elena realizes that someone has cursed the vineyard and that there is a deeper melancholia in the roots, that she’s not sure how it came to be. She and Grand-Mere begin working on sorting out the curses, going behind Jean-Paul’s back about putting in amulets and protection charms to fight off the curse. Unfortunately, Jean-Paul does find one of her amulets, and confronts her about it, but she tells him that it’s a tradition placed by Grand Pere at the start of the season, so he agrees to let it be alone.
At one point, as Elena and Grand Mere have been working to sort out the astral charts to make the best wine possible, Bastien and his wife, who is a bierhexe, come for a visit, claiming that their car broke down not too far from the mansion. Except, they actually came there with a proposition-bastion wants to buy the Chateau and the vineyards to bring them back to their former glory. As they talk, Arielle brings out a bottle of one of the best wines that the Chateau had created–coincidentally, one of the wines made by Elena before her curse–and the wine actually is so good that even the bierhexe is jealous. Elena, overhearing all of this, decides to damn her plan of staying hidden to then exact revenge on Bastien later, and runs down to confront him. Only Bastien is gone with his wife, and she faces Jean-Paul, telling him that she will not be okay with him selling the house and the vineyard because this is her home. She breaks the wine bottle, throwing in the glass into a fire, saying a spell. Ariella asks him if she is sure about this, and Elena tells her that she is. She takes the glass out of the fire, then grabs Jean-Paul, and brings him out to the vineyard. She tells him to look at the Vineyard now as it is, and he sees nothing, but then when she hands him the glass, he starts to see the magical world that she sees–the melancholia in the vineyard, and the gargoyle that has been terrorizing the vineyard. This freaks him out and he goes running off.
For the next 24 hours, he does not return, and so Elena goes out to find him–but he’s not in any bar whatsoever. She stops by a hidden bar that is all centered around serving witches, and listens into any and all gossip, where she overhears people talking about cats and other animals being desiccated or drained of blood. She asks some questions of the owner of the bar, including whether or not this could be some blood magic–one of the oldest and darkest forms of magic that has been forbidden by the covenants. She then asks the owner if she had ever seen a witch with a clock that had an eyelid of a dragon in green and gold, to which the owner says that she hasn’t. Elena explains briefly that this person had cursed her, and she wants to find them to understand why, and the witch promises to let her know as soon as she sees someone like that.
Elena gets up to leave the bar, when she encounters Inspector Nettles, who is from the Covenant Bureau and is looking into the desiccated cats and animals. He wants to ask her some questions, as he had overheard her conversation with the owner, and Elena answers some, but then panics because she doesn’t want to reveal who she really is, so she creates an illusion that attacks him, and runs away. He manages to pursue her to an extent, but she is always a step ahead of it all, and even goes as far as running through the bakery of another witch–one that she had avoided earlier because the way her magic works means that she targets people who are in love with enticing smells–and runs out of it, right into the road, where she is almost hit by a car driven by none other than Bastien. Inspector Nettles finds her and yells out that someone should hold onto her because he wants to question her. Bastien grabs her and recognizes her, asking where she has been these last seven years. Elena accuses him of cursing her and he is so confused–evidently showing that he has never done what she is accusing him of. She also threatens to kill him. Suddenly, Bastien’s wife Gerda the bierhexe shows up and asks him what he is doing to this poor girl, and both he and the Inspector unhand Elena, letting her go. Gerda and Elena measure each other, feeling each other out.
Jean-Paul in the meantime had been in the abbey library, asking for information from the Monk on what he was seeing. He had spent the last 24 hours reading up on the Witches and the Covenant rules, and the Monk also explained it to him in a way that makes sense–that they are both men of science and while there are chemical processes that create these things, some of them have yet to be measured in any meaningful way. Maybe in the future they will be able to measure the magical world in such a way, but for now Jean-Paul should have faith in the vine witches; after all, having faith in the unseen is not so far off from what they already do with religion. Jean-Paul heads out home. And along the way, he finds Elena in the midst of a commotion, so he pulls over, claims her as being his Vine Witch that he hired to help with his vineyard. They let her go, and they head home.
A week later, Ariella says that things have gotten worse–much, much worse–and at first Elena and Jean-Paul think that she is talking about the weather, but it turns out that actually she is talking about the contingent of cars and officers that is coming towards them. Together with Jean-Paul she stands outside, and they ask what this is about. They want to take Elena away, and it turns out that they have an arrest warrant out for her, for killing Bastien and draining his blood. They find a desiccated cat around the building, and then arrest her, taking her to a house where she will await trial. She is placed with two other women accused of murdering other people–Yvette, and Sidra–with whom she becomes friends. Jean-Paul in the meantime, makes plans to go see her in the jail, and tries to figure out where the women have things hidden in the kitchen as they don’t do things the typical way. Ariella had stepped out and disappeared, telling him that she will be be back. His mom shows up with his uncle, and she creates a basket for him to take to Elena, before he drops them off at a hotel nearby, telling them that he is for sure not going back to Law in the city.
Jean-Paul visits her, telling everyone that he is her lawyer, and the two of them talk together, where she tells him everything including the three charlatan witches that she encountered a while back who tried to make her pay for a few animals that they had been carrying with them, with the intent to kill them. She also tells him to look into Gerda to find out more about what happened with Bastien. He gives her the matches and the cigarettes. She takes them back, gives them to Yvette, and Sidra gets excited to see them. Yvette reveals why matches and fire is not allowed in the prison, and gives them to Sidra, who sets herself on fire, leaving nothing behind, and the prison guard finds Elena leaning over where Sidra was. The Matron of the prison asks him what happened, and he tells her that Elena had a visitor. Later on in the evening, as the ladies start to fall asleep, the beams of the prison are on fire, and it starts spreading. The women are evacuated from the prison, and eventually Yvette and Elena make the decision to run. As they run into the forest, they call on Sidra, who appears–she is a jinni, so fire frees her–and she grants them the wish to be free of the shackles.
Yvette takes Elena to the carnival and the following morning, Elena tells Yvette the story of how she ended up in prison, and asks her if she knows anyone who may have blood magic books or information. Yvette knows someone who will, and then makes them dress up before taking them to this witch–Rackham–who answers Elena’s questions about blood magic, speaking about witches being bonded to demons in exchange for power. He starts to get suspicious, and asks her for her name, but Elena jumps out of the wagon, to find a commotion because Inspector Nettles and his men have come. The two women walk and Elena realizes that Gerda is the witch who has been killing animals and draining their blood. She knows she has to go to find Jean-Paul and warn him, and she finds Gerda with Jean-Paul in the cellar of Bastien’s vineyard. Jean-Paul had gone in to visit Gerda only to be put under a spell. After she comes back from the shadow world, Yvette tells her to go for the wagon, while she goes to find something that will help them escape. Elena gets lost, and Yvette comes up in a car, taking them away from the carnival. Elena makes a split decision to visit the Abbey, and there she grabs a few things from the Monk who also gives her cheese with a sprig of lavender as a protection charm.
The two women show up at Bastien’s vineyard, where Elena does a protection spell on both of them, but leaves Yvette in the protective circle while she goes to find Gerda. She and Gerda talk, after she hypnotizes Jean-Paul to sleep, and it turns out that Gerda is almost 300 years old, after having become bonded to a demon for power when she was screwed over by her former employer who used to make beer. She tried to have Elena put on trial for Bastien’s death, so that she could disappear, and start anew somewhere else, continue living her life. Gerda offers Elena to join them, as she transforms to an old lady, but Elena rejects the offer. Then Elena sees the demon, who is trying to eat Jean-Paul, but Elena fights him off, while keeping Gerda in her eye sight. She has to wake Jean-Paul up and while she keeps them engaged, he manages to get loose from the ties around his hands, and get the wine press off of him, while Yvette shows up and attacks Gerda, only to be flung across the room. Gerda disappears down the cellars after being wounded, and Elena deals with the demon, who bites into her and then ends up convulsing, and dying, which makes her realize that she still has the toxin from eating the toad skin in her bloodstream. She checks on both Jean-Paul and Yvette, before calling for Sidra to come take Yvette out of the cellar, as she hears the police looking for her. Then she leaves Jean-Paul and goes to find Gerda, who is using her own blood to finish the spell to make herself look young. She admits to everything, including killing Bastien, and when the Inspector shows up, she pretends that she has been tortured by Elena. The Inspector takes Gerda out of the room, appearing to try to protect her from Elena, and she walks right into the Matron who handcuffs her. Elena follows at the behest of the Inspector, who tells her that he heard everything. As they walk through the different parts of the cellar, the work that Gerda has done to make herself young, disintegrates around her because of the manacles that basically cut off any spells. They let Gerda disintegrate and die.
Jean-Paul and Elena return to the house, and Elena takes him into her cellar–which Jean-Paul realizes is more like a broom closet, like Ariella had always said–and then begins to heal him. She finds it odd that something from her shelves is missing–a poison that she had made when she came back, with the intent of getting revenge on the person or persons who cursed her–and Jean-Paul tells her that Ariella had been in there earlier to get some things. They end up making love, the two of them, and later that evening there is a sound of wings–a pigeon has come with a message from the witch owner of the pub. She had finally found the person who has the clock chain that Elena was asking about.
Elena comes to the pub with Jean-Paul but tells him to stay outside, and goes in by herself. The owner tells her that the man has shown up and is sitting in one of the booths with an older lady–so Elena goes up to it, and recognizes Rackham’s voice. When she pulls aside the curtain, he recognizes her too and is surprised to see that she is not a toad. Then she pulls aside the other curtain and finds Grand-Mere on the other side, accusing Rackham of lying. It turns out that he had sold Elena to Grand-Mere after her parents told him to get rid of her–she is the daughter of veneficas, poison-maker witches, who were part of the Carnival. Grand-Mere had seen that she had a lot of potential in her, and figured that the wine is a different type of poison where Elena’s skills could be put to use. Turns out that is always why Elena had a keen sense for potions, and how to counteract them which is what probably saved her life in the swamp. Rackham was the one who put her under a spell from Elena’s biological mother’s grimoire, which should have meant that she would never have escaped her toad body, after a request from Grand-Mere. Before Rackham can say anything more, he dies from the poison he ingested–a poison Elena had made with the intention of revenge on the people who made her a toad–which Grand-Mere had slipped into his drink. Elena also realizes that Grand-Mere had taken that poison herself, and Grand-Mere reveals that she had as Rackham to take Elena with him on a trip for a carnival, in order to get her away from Bastien. She had realized that Bastien was not good for Elena and wanted to give them some space so that Elena could realize that too, so she approached Rackham with money to take Elena with her. Unfortunately the money was not enough to board Elena for a year–that was a plan–with the carnival, so Rackham suggested transforming Elena into something else. He never really clarified but Grand-Mere understood it to be a transformation into an animal that can easily be moved along with the rest of the carnival without taking up additional space. Instead, he had cursed Elena and left her to fend for herself, unbeknownst to Grand-Mere, who came back to the Carnival the following year to ask about Elena. At the time, Rackham had told her that Elena had run off with another guy, and Grand-Mere took him at his word, but she never stopped hoping that Elena would come back. Then she passes away from the same poison, leaving Elena without mentors and family that had raised. Jean-Paul had come in by that time and tried to do something to save Grand-Mere but there was nothing else that could be done as Elena made it so the poison could not be vomited out of the stomach, fating the drinker to die.
In the weeks and months after Grand-Mere’s death, Elena returned to making wine at Chateau Renard, while Jean-Paul turned to laws and the covenant decrees because she needed to have a formal hearing. Because two people died from a poison that Elena created, she had to be registered with the Covenants Regulations Bureau as a venefica so that her concoctions can be monitored for malicious use. He explained all of the legalese so that she could be mostly free to work on the wine, which was overshadowed by the loss of Grand-Mere and the betrayal. Once Elena worked her own thoughts and issues out, she was able to say yes to his proposal. Ultimately, the two of them open up a bottle that had aged for two years–indicating that two years had passed since they worked on the vineyard after Grand-Mere’s passing–and the wine is as exquisite as the wine that Elena had made before she was cursed, hitting just the right notes the way that she had always intended.
My Thoughts: The book started off very strange, that I literally had a wtf moment in the first chapter and almost considered putting it down. Once I got past that chapter though, the story became very entertaining and interesting to read. I did enjoy the plot and the creativity of the story, though I do wish that some things were further explained—like what happened to Elena’s parents, are they still alive, why did Rackham want to curse Elena as a toad for all eternity. The motive that he had to create this curse in this manner and to keep her like this for all eternity is very unclear. I feel like if he had been asked to keep Elena away as per Grand-Mere’s request and wasn’t a kind warlock, then he would have cursed her to be an animal for a couple of years after which she would then return without any memory. Or he could have just taken her with him.
Aside from that, I enjoyed reading on how Elena grows as a person and a witch with Jean-Paul around; how she takes risks to save the people that she loves, even if at the end she loses the person who has always been her mother figure. I loved the closeness that she has with Grand-Mere even if there are no blood relations between the two.
It’s a great read, and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.