Author: Silver Ravenwolf
Trade Paperback, 240 pages
Publication date: May 2000
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Note: I usually don't review fiction. So much about fiction is personal taste, and it's difficult to present an accurate review along with justification for an opinion that may be purely subjective. I'm also a fiction writer myself, and the average reader probably doesn't give a rat's rear end about POV switches, author intrusion, or character motivation as much as I do. That said, I will attempt to give a relevant review on fiction and try not to give away the ending.
Witches' Night Out is a young adult novel written by a well-known author of wiccan how-to books. After the success of the author's non-fiction Teen Witch, featuring a cover shot right off a movie set, the story goes that the author's teenage daughter suggested a series of stories about the kids on the cover. Witches Chillers (the series title) was the end result. The first book in the series features the character of Bethany Salem, a sixteen year old witch living in small-town New York. Her boyfriend was recently killed in a car accident, heaping extra grief upon the normal dose of angst the average teenager receives along with a learner's permit on their sixteenth birthday. Bethany, however, doesn't think the accident was an accident, and begins a material and metaphysical quest to find her boyfriend's killer.
What Ms. Ravenwolf does best, in my opinion, is capture the somewhat paranoid and distorted point of view of a teenager. Granted, it has been some time since I was one, but I do remember thinking that the world was out to get me, that adults were like large cargo ships making occasional hulking shadows in the fog of my life, and that Lord-Of-The-Flies viciousness of high school. It isn't easy to maintain a teenager's point of view when you are old enough to know better, but I think the author did a fine job with keeping her own adult perspective out of most of the narrative.
The teens who will eventually be featured in all the series books were very well fleshed-out. One can tell that Ms. Ravenwolf lives in a house full of teenagers and has a front-row seat to the world of incomprehensible teenage logic and contrary teenage personality. I very much enjoyed the foray into the teenage mind with the secure knowledge that I could get out anytime. Based on this, I put the book down at the end thinking, Thank the Gods I survived growing up, which may or may not be the feeling the author intended. The five members of the coven were the most developed characters and all unique.
The character of Ramona, Bethany's housekeeper in a Nancy Drew-type family situation, had the potential to be one of those unforgettable secondary characters that help bring a story to life, but not if she continues to serve as simply a vehicle for exposition. To translate that out of writerspeak, I thought Ramona needed more personality time and less pop-in-to-explain-an-element-of-witchcraft time. I would have liked to see her developed to a deeper level. She could be a really fun character that bridges the gap between the teen and the adult and I hope she appears in the subsequent books. The other adult secondary characters in the story seemed vague and caricature-like, from the intolerant high-school principal to Bethany's wicked-stepmother-candidate. However, it needs to be said that this could be due to the total immersion of the reader in Bethany's point of view--at sixteen, the adult world is flat and colorless while one's own problems have 3-d special effects and smell-o-vi
Now to the part you're all dying to know--how did the author handle the magick in the book? First off, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the coven wasn't the stuck-like-glue group I expected. These teens kept secrets from each other and suspected each other like any teenagers would. Bethany, as protagonist, suspects everyone and everything, including her covenmates, with whom she spent the past year studying and practicing magick. The coven seems actually more of a study group or circle as opposed to the traditional Gardnerian-type coven.
Bearing that in mind, in a work of fiction, even if the magick were as accurate and true-to-life as if I'd worked it myself, unless it fit into the story and characters, it wouldn't work. If these teens were to perform flawless Ceremonial High Magick, I'd have to throw the book against the wall, no matter how accurate the Magick or the effects were, because it would not fit a group of first-year teenage witches.
What you will see is teenagers making some (sometimes stupid) choices, most notably, calling on the Wild Hunt for vengeance. But this isn't done without consequence--the teenagers themselves know the risks, and they aren't in agreement about doing it. I thought the author handled that aspect very realistically. With all of the magick done, the consequences of it are felt by the characters and the results are considerably more subtle than movie magick. The magick is a little less subtle than real-world magick in that the results are sometimes instantaneous and obvious, but if I were writing young adult fiction about witches, I'd probably do the same for the entertainment value. It is fiction, after all.
The magick you see in the book besides the Wild Hunt includes things like healings, asking the dead for help, glamoury, and cantrips. Bethany seems to be an adequate on-the-fly cantrip composer, and even though she doesn't show the best judgment in tossing the little numbers out, they make for interesting entertainment. I found nothing that seemed truly ethically questionable in context--when the teens made the wrong choices they ended up getting the karma associated with those choices. And they did make some wrong choices, but they were well within character limits.
What I very emphatically did not like about the presence of magick in the book was the sheer amount of heavy-handed exposition surrounding it. Each time magick played a role in the plot, it was surrounded by characters talking or thinking all the instructional exposition that went along with the particular magick. This interrupts the flow of the story and takes characterization away from the characters. As a person who has read many of the author's nonfiction books and has practiced the craft for years, I found this tedious to work through. The author has a very strong personal voice in her nonfiction, and the bits of exposition about magick more accurately reflected her voice rather than the voice of a particular character. My opinions might be different if I were a teen, or even just a person unfamiliar with the craft. I might have appreciated the explanation more. If it were me, I would have found a more subtle way to work in the exposition.
The book's biggest weakness lies in that it attempts to cover all the cliches about teens, witches, and magick in 240 pages. The characters go through a laundry list of teen problems such as parent and peer pressure, teen pregnancy, convoluted romance, feeling different, potential step-parents, having lockers searched and the Horror that is the High School Dance, all the while hitting all the bumps that witchcraft comes with--being outed by someone else, suffering discrimination from teachers, other students, employers, and parents, and being accused by the media and the authorities of belonging to a Satanic cult. While this is going on, there are the aforementioned expository sections on magick.
I realize that part of the reason the book was written was to prove that entertaining fiction can exist without Hollywood magick and Hollywood witches. That's a tall order for a single category-length work of fiction. It is virtually impossible to cover all the above issues with justice in a book of this length. The author made a good try, but at the sacrifice of some characterization and plot depth. My hope is that at least some of these issues will be explored with more depth once the series gets off the ground. As with any first book in a series, there's no guarantee of a second if the first doesn't fly.
The book's main plot is a mystery, and most successful mysteries have a clue trail and red herrings that the reader should be able to put together to arrive at a solution. Upon finishing the mystery, the reader is usually able to look back and say either, "I knew it," or "I should have guessed it." This clue trail wasn't present in the story. The motivation of the culprit was cloudy and slightly unrealistic, and the ending wrapped up too conveniently. Well-paced foreshadowing would have made for a tighter read than the last-minute clues used to wrap up the story. Readers of mysteries will be disappointed with the mystery's lack of focus. It wasn't the worst ending that could have happened, though. I would have thrown the book against the wall if magick had any more involvement than it did in the mystery (I can't be more specific without running the risk of giving away the ending, and since I personally can't stand reveiws that do that, I'm trying to avoid it here).
All in all, it is passable fiction. Because of the exposition, it works a lot better as a fictionalized introduction to magick that is relatable in a real-world sense. The author is well-known for her friendly, personable voice in nonfiction. Once she finds her stride in fiction and gains more experience in story crafting, she has the potential to write some truly entertaining stories.
I would suggest reviewing the book yourself before you let your younger child read it because of the presence of a gruesome death in the plot (not graphic, just explained to be so, but still witnessed by a character, and not, in my opinion, given the attention it merited--losing a friend to an accident, or even a murder is one thing, witnessing a death is quite another). Your older teen might find it light because of the exposition and straightforwardness of the plot.
The whole thing took me a day and a half to read. One additional beef I have with the book is that while it was 240 pages, it was heavy on margins and larger type. For 4.99 suggested retail, I want more ink on the page. It held up to toting around and the binding didn't instantly crack. I purchased my copy at ecampus.com for $3.97 and free shipping. At the discount price, I think I got my money's worth.
Reviewed by AthenaPrime
Additional Books by Silver Ravenwolf