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Onyx reviews: The Witches of Echo Park by Amber Benson

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/04/2015

Covens of witches exist around the world, tending to humanity's needs, unbeknownst to most ordinary people. They hide in plain sight, and even those who live near or with them don't suspect that they often retreat to a nearby wooded area or a darkened room to perform age-old rituals. These aren't the evil witches of horror movies or cartoons; these are women young and old who operate on principals that would be familiar to modern-day practitioners of Wicca, though they have real powers, passed down from generation to generation.

Lyse, who has a "magic touch" with plants, is one of those who has lived among the witches most of her life without suspecting their true nature. She was raised by Eleanora Eames (who she thinks of as a great aunt) from the age of 13 in Echo Park, a section of Los Angeles that will be familiar to readers of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels. For the past several years, she has lived on the other side of the continent, where she is co-owner of a flower shop. A call from Eleanora one October day brings her home for the first time in half a decade. Eleanora has terminal cancer.

Not only does Lyse have to deal with her surrogate mother's impending death, she has to come to term with the revelation that Eleanora is part of the Echo Park coven. At first she thinks the women are delusional, but she slowly accepts their beliefs. The coven—in fact, all covens—are at risk because of an ill-defined threat known as The Flood. Only an innocent stands in the way of the Devil's dominion over all the world.

Eleanora's coven consists of a diverse group of women, including Dev (Devandra Montrose), their tarot reader; Arabelle, the herbalist; Danielle, an empath who must wear gloves to protect herself against her powerful visions; and Lizbeth, a teenage apprentice who is mute from trauma. Eleanora, for her part, is the group's clairvoyant and master. With her impending death, she needs to appoint a replacement. The coven is also lacking a Dream Keeper, someone whose dream visions must always be obeyed. It is a dying art; none have been born in the last half century. 

Though the novel is female-centric, these witches aren't radical feminists who eschew men. Dev has a husband who has converted their garage into the Mucho Man Cave and Weekend Bar, the site of many neighborhood gatherings. Lizbeth has a half-brother, Weir, to whom Lyse is instantly attracted, though their relationship is somewhat complicated by her experiences during her indoctrination into the coven. The characters are strong, wise, mature, independent women, many of whom have suffered abusive pasts. The relationship between Eleanora and Lyse is reminiscent of Fern and her Mammy in Graham Joyce's The Limits of Enchantment or of his family of sisters in The Facts of Life.

Members of the coven do not deny science; magic is their word for the things that science has not yet found a way to describe. The world of witches is, in part, a world of dreams and visions. Lyse's long-forgotten recurring dream comes back to her and, unlike characters in lesser books, she and her new friends share information gleaned from these visions with each other. It is also a world where the dead do not remain silent. 

The cover makes it look like the novel is targeted at young adults, but this is an adult novel, make no mistake. Readers should also be advised that The Witches of Echo Park is the first book in a series. It sets the stage for a coming battle, but does not have a firm resolution. However, there is no doubt left in readers' minds that the threat is real and imminent. The first wave of violence against them has already taken place by book's end, and closely held secrets will be revealed. Not everyone in the coven is who she seems; even among witches there are secrets and schemes and one clever bit of misdirection. 

The book serves as an ode to Echo Park, which Benson describes with obvious fondness. To the coven it is a special place, situated on a flow line that infuses it with power, but it is also a fascinating neighborhood, eclectic and diverse, once home to bohemians and radicals. Benson has a firm grip on the location and her characters, deftly switching points of view from chapter to chapter. Though there is not a great deal of forward action—a lot of the book deals with backstory—The Witches of Echo Park is a fine beginning to what promises to be a fascinating series.

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