on Aug. 20, 2014 :
Herb-Witch is billed as a fantasy romance, but it isn't quite a romance. Although it does involve two characters potentially moving towards a relationship, it lacks the key genre requirement of a happily ever after ending - because it lacks an ending at all. There's a ton of plot going on, but the main threads are not resolved by the end of the book. This isn't the first book of a duology as claimed; it's the first half of a massive two-volume story. Herb-Witch and Herb-Wife are really one book split up into two volumes, so don't expect to find resolution or closure in just one volume.
The main characters are well-drawn, with distinct voices and personalities. However, those personalities are unsympathetic enough to be off-putting. The heroine is cynical, sullen, honest, angry, judgmental, and given to cutting off her nose to spite her face. She resents her lot in life, but repeatedly turns down the chance to improve it. She also has a healthy dose of self-loathing, having internalized the racism that permeates the book. The hero, on the other hand, is responsible, serious, sheltered, idealistic, and spectacularly naive. It doesn't take a genius to realize that extortion gangs don't take kindly to informers, nor that a reputation for frequenting kinky brothels might reflect poorly on a suitor. It strains the suspension of disbelief that he hasn't been bamboozled into being someone's puppet well before the book began. The minor characters are a mixed bag. The hero's brother is a jumble of disparate characteristics (feckless, romantic, frothingly racist) that never quite gel into a coherent personality. The heroine's sister is the Hooker With a Heart Of Gold, straight out of TVTropes. She's a stock character and a plot device, not an individual. Apprentice Nicia, on the other hand, is both well-developed for a supporting character and reasonably sympathetic.
Racism permeates Herb-Witch. The story is set in a culture where everyone who can afford it bleaches their skin, hair, and eyes to achieve a pale ideal - an ideal which is equated not just with physical beauty, but with moral character. Neither the characters nor the narrative voice ever seem to question these beliefs. The narrative acceptance of fictional cultural norms enhances the depth of immersion in the setting, but the relentless emphasis on how dark coloration is ugly and bad could be profoundly unsettling to a reader who is sensitive to the issue. I found it uncomfortable enough that I chose not to continue reading the series.
The magical worldbuilding is excellent. Magical effects are produced by the related arts of alchemy and herb-witchery, the distinction seeming to lie largely in the use of metal salts in the former. Various ingredients are steeped in the light of assorted heavenly bodies before use. The names used for magical concoctions - clae, Purgatorie, Incandescens - are evocative variations on English that clearly convey meaning without seeming mundane. Alchemy is portrayed as being on the cusp of a breakthrough from art to science, as befits the pseudo-Renaissance setting. The geometries of ingredients can be analyzed by a method reminiscent of X-ray crystallography to check for explosive interactions, and there are hints of research into steeping ingredients in the light of distant stars. Given the author's background in the roleplaying game industry, I would like to see a write-up of this magic system for gaming purposes.
(reviewed 3 years after purchase)
on Aug. 3, 2014 :
I really enjoyed McCoy's Queen of Roses, so I decided to buy her Lord Alchemist Duology as well. Herb-Witch turned out to be incredibly difficult to get into, although I did eventually find my footing in this new world. I became invested in the characters...and then the ending happened. To say it was disappointing is putting it mildly. I'll have to read Book 2 to be sure, but so far I'd have to say that this book is not for romance fans, despite the "romance" tag I've seen applied to it.
Iathor, the Lord Alchemist, first meets Kessa Herbsman in a prison cell. She has been accused of disminding a moneylender with one of her potions. Iathor uses a truth potion on her and realizes that she is an immune, someone on whom most potions have little or no effect. There are only two known immunes at the moment: Iathor (the Lord Alchemist is required to be immune) and his heir and brother, Iasen. Iathor has been searching for an immune woman for decades, because he must either marry an immune woman or take a dramswife, a woman who has drunk the dramsman's draught in order to make her completely loyal to him. The thought of a wife who has no choice but to be by his side horrifies him.
Ugly, half-barbarian Kessa never expected to receive a marriage proposal from anyone, much less the Lord Alchemist, but she's not about to fall gratefully into his arms. She has no idea what it means to be immune or how rare it is. All she wants is to take care of her sickly foster sister and to be left alone. Iathor attempts to woo Kessa by feeding her, taking care of her when she's ill or in pain, and generally making her life easier. Even if she decides not to be his wife, he'd at least like to make her his student.
Here's how I thought the story would go: Kessa would agree to become Iathor's student. She'd gradually make friends with Nicia, another trainee. She'd work with Iathor to stop the activities of the gray watch and discover who had dosed the moneylender prior to her meeting with him. She'd eventually come to trust Iathor with her secrets and her family, and, finally, she'd agreed to marry him. What could have just been a marriage of convenience would end up being a love match. Book 2 would feature Kessa trying to adjust to life among the wealthy and titled, Iathor adjusting to Kessa's family, and both of them facing Iasen's hatred of Kessa's half-barbarian heritage.
Some things went the way I thought they would. Others, not so much.
At first, I was on Kessa's side. Iathor seemed to accept it as a given that Kessa would agree to marry him. Never mind that this would turn her world upside down. Never mind that her immunity meant that the children he wanted her to bear might kill her. I wasn't entirely sure about how immunity worked – a potion designed to heal Kessa's arm worked, for instance, but most pain-relievers didn't. At the very least, giving birth would be awful. What if there were complications during her pregnancy, and her immunity prevented potions from helping her?
Iathor's accommodating attitude and Kessa's intense prickliness and bucket-loads of paranoia eventually put me more on Iathor's side. She snarled at him at every opportunity, despite the fact that he did almost nothing to deserve it. It was very difficult to like her, and I began to wish that Laita, Kessa's foster sister, was the immune main character instead. Kessa's resistance to Iathor dragged on an on, while the much more practical, mercenary, and charming Laita would have seen an opportunity for her and her family to move up in the world and would have cheerfully grabbed it.
I could imagine Iathor marrying Laita for political reasons and the immune children she might give him, Laita marrying him for his political power and money, and their relationship either blossoming into love or not. Either way, it would have felt better than what Kessa did at the end of this book. Kessa told Nicia not to feign immunity because it would be cruel to Iathor, but I felt that what she did was almost as cruel. Not to mention possibly unnecessary, if she had only unbent enough to finally trust Iathor even a little.
McCoy went way, way overboard with Kessa, both in terms of her prickliness towards Iathor and her ugliness. Readers were reminded over and over again that Kessa's eyes were hideous – the color of dog-vomit, or rotting herbs, or dead leaves. She hid them both because she was self-conscious about them about them and because the full force of her gaze could be effective as a weapon. The bit that really got me was that her own foster siblings flinched away from her gaze. Unless her eyes were magically repellent, which I don't think they were, this was too much.
I had a lot of issues with McCoy's writing. I had to go back and reread certain earlier parts of the book several times because details necessary for understanding those bits weren't revealed until much later. The rhythm of characters' speech and thoughts (especially Kessa's) sometimes made things harder to follow than they should have been. I spent the first quarter of the book trying to find my footing and didn't truly feel sure about my knowledge of the world until I was halfway through.
In general, I felt that the story would have been much improved had an editor gone through and tightened certain parts up and placed some of the world explanations earlier in the book. Considering how much fun I had with Queen of Roses, I had expected to love this book. While I liked several of the characters and their interactions, enjoyed Kessa's alchemy training, and wanted to see how and whether Iathor could win Kessa over, adjusting to this world took more work than it should have, and the ending wasn't worth it. If I didn't already own Book 2, I don't know that I could bring myself to buy it. However, since I do own it, I'll read it and see if the duology as a whole is worth the trouble, even if this first book was a disappointment.
A combined cast list and glossary is included at the end of the book. In my opinion, the glossary should have been listed at the beginning. It might have made the first quarter of the book less confusing.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions)
(reviewed 5 days after purchase)
on Feb. 10, 2013 :
I enjoyed this book and it's sequel, Herb-Wife very much. The misunderstandings between Iathor and Kessa because of their very different backgrounds felt very true to me.
(reviewed 22 days after purchase)
on Sep. 1, 2012 :
Elizabeth McCoy of GURPS IOU and In Nomine fame is not only a fantastic game designer she is a fantastic author (though both professions do lend well to the other). Herb-Witch’s premise is simple enough: the protagonist, Kessa Herbsman is framed for a crime she didn’t commit (or did she?) and the Lord Alchemist of the city, Iathor Kymus decides to investigate. The obstacles include Kessa’s heritage (she’s a half “barbarian”), the Lord Alchemist’s brother, her own studies in alchemy, and famously enough the herb-witch’s own stubbornness. As the story progresses the reader learns of Kessa’s alchemical “immunity” and though its not revealed till more than half-way in this becomes a very important theme. I don’t want to give away to much here but the way McCoy weaves multiple tales in the same story is (in my personal opinion) quite expert. Moreover, the blending of the everyday and the not-so-everyday appeals to my own internal storyteller. After all what do the protagonists of stories do when you’re not looking at them? This theme is seen quite often through the whole book, and while it can run flat if done wrong, this is not the case with Herb-Witch. The best parts are where in my opinion when the main plot was not talked about. Oh and did I mention that there’s a marriage proposal in a jail cell? Yeah, figured that’d get your attention. McCoy’s dialogue is witty, clever, and to the point with such wonderful gems as: “Then I’ll be in my office, knocking for minor issues, screaming for explosions.”
Now that’s not to say I found all of the book enjoyable, McCoy packs a ton of information in her book about Kessa’s world and it does take a bit to parse (I ended up having to read a paragraph here and there a few times). Furthermore a bit of a peeve of mine is the vagueness of geography (the overall area, not the city itself which is splendidly colorful), maybe I’m just spoiled for maps in my fantasy novels.
Herb-Witch is a fantastic book that deserves more attention that what it has so far received.
(reviewed 6 days after purchase)
on March 22, 2012 :
Less straight fantasy and more Regency, but you won't find vapid nobles exchanging empty witticisms here; the Lord Alchemist and the Herb-Witch of the title are both intelligent characters who value their independence and separate responsibilities and will not lightly abandon their loyalties.
Beyond that, this story brings out its alchemy with vivid descriptions of taste and smell and consequences. It feels like an alternate world Renaissance science, not like an airy magic that perfectly serves the convenience of its purveyors, but a science that is still fringed with 'Here there be dragons'.
The writing is crisp, and... hang on, I'll leave you with my favorite line of the book:
"Analyzing the geometries of herb-witchery ingredients was like washing a cat. It looked simple, but sprouted extra legs when you weren't looking, and /wiggled/."
(reviewed 27 days after purchase)
on March 10, 2012 :
I very much enjoyed both the characters and world-building in this book. Both are intelligent and plausible. Even the villain (or as much of a villain as that person is) acts from his own perspective and for his own reasons, and does so with a plausible amount of common sense.
While the character interplay was excellent, I really appreciated the amount of work that's been put into the things that make this world run, and the consequences -- both political, and pragmatic, and also the natural results of having alchemy and immunities.
This is a lovely, complex book, with worthwhile characters and with a story that leaves the reader urgently wanting to find out what happens next.
(reviewed 15 days after purchase)
on March 4, 2012 :
If I were to review this book with a single sentence, it would be thus: Thank goodness for intelligent characters.
I've seen many a story where someone seems to have told the author "Don't have them go straight into being a loving couple, it'll be boring."
And so, for reasons that stretch both credibility and characterization the couple squabble and fight until eventually realizing that they really love one another and forming a relationship. Something that the audience never had any doubt of.
Not so here. Intelligent characters coming from different places have genuine problems working out their relationship issues. And they're honest relationship issues rather than simply being inserted by authorial fiat and having no explanation save stupidity or irrationality on the part of the characters.
Now, the world is well constructed carefully and consistently with excellent attention to detail, and I appreciate that a lot too.
But quality characterization like this is rarer than quality world building. Rarer still to find both together.
(reviewed 8 days after purchase)