heidi's Reviews > Herb-Witch

Herb-Witch by Elizabeth McCoy
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it was amazing
bookshelves: reviewed, ebook, fantasy, romance, wiscon

I really loved this book, and bought the second one from my Kindle the second I clicked the last page. Then I spent the next three weeks telling people about it in person and trying to decide how to write the reviews.

So here's what I told people:
It's got an interesting and well-realized world, with the feeling like we are only seeing a very small part of a much bigger map. The character motivations are not baffling or arbitrary, which one might be more tolerant of if it were being sold as a romance. And it certainly has every element of a forced-marriage romance. But both main characters are also independent and self-sufficient and have their own wants and needs which do not center around short-term desires. Sometimes they are stupid, but only because they don't have all the information to make a better decision.

It's self-published. I wonder if it is that lack of "saleability editing" that makes the flavor just a little unusual. This book (and the one following) are full of sexuality. Not sexiness, or explicit sex, but the different functions of men's and women's bodies. Perhaps the best illustration is this glossary entry:

"dry tea: a contraceptive preparation for women. "Dry" refers to "infertile fields," parched from drought; the tea is brewed and drunk normally. An integral ingredient is maiden's blood; the definition of "maiden" is very strict, for this purpose."

There is a male equivalent, also. Fertility, and the prevention thereof, figure heavily in the storylines. Also Kessa is one of those women with apocalyptically bad periods, and it's just... a thing. No one avoids talking about it, it's not taboo or secret, it's just an impediment she has. The whole culture is set up so that women are as capable of almost everything as men are. Kessa is not exceptional because she owns a business, nor because she knows how to defend herself. She is exceptional because she is imaginative and stoic and flexible. And the stubborn doesn't hurt, either.

She also has extremely striking eyes, and unlike any romance novel I've ever read, they are not a point of beauty, but a disfigurement. I thought it was interesting that she uses her ugliness as a weapon, and even the man falling in love with her has trouble making eye contact with her.

Kessa is a herb-witch, working with naturally occurring ingredients to make simple potions and mixes to help people stay or become healthy. Iathor is an alchemist, and works with chemicals or "metal-salts" to create more powerful medicines and potions. One of the ways he woos Kessa is to offer to teach her more alchemy to enhance her existing knowledge. And he needs all the lures he can get -- it turns out that proposing to people when you first meet them in a dungeon and you are in a position of power makes it hard for them to trust you. Who knew, right?

Of course, the other reason she can't trust him is she has a second life, and doesn't think he would approve of it, not in the least, but her second, secret life involves her family, and she's not about to give them up or endanger them by exposure.

Like I said at the top, I really liked this book. I was blown away by the worldbuilding and structure, the seamless genre-bending, and the interesting investigations on the nature of consent, love, dynastic marriages, and birth control.

Read if: You're looking for something living comfortably between fantasy and romance. You like thinking about the problems of consent and forced marriages. You love a heroine who has a bit of sneak thief in her. You're my sister.

Skip if: You are really going to be ooked out by female biology. Romance only clutters up your poisoning mysteries. You are allergic to the Magical Dark Skinned People trope.

Also read:
The Midwife's Apprentice for herbal healing and strong-minded women.
Herb-Wife It's what I read next!
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Reading Progress

August 14, 2012 – Shelved
November 2, 2012 – Started Reading
November 4, 2012 – Finished Reading
November 25, 2012 – Shelved as: ebook
November 25, 2012 – Shelved as: reviewed
November 25, 2012 – Shelved as: fantasy
November 25, 2012 – Shelved as: romance
April 22, 2013 – Shelved as: wiscon

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