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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
The Witches' Kitchen - Cecelia Holland Circa the year 964. Corban Loosestrife, his wife Benna, their four children and Corban's half-mad sister Mav, are living on an island somewhere off the coast of the Americas. He brought his family there to escape the political machinations of his homeland in Ireland. Previously, (in The Soul Thief), nearly all his family was slaughtered by Vikings; his sister taken and raped by Eric Bloodaxe. Corban did what any sensible man of the 900s would do--he killed Bloodaxe to redeem his sister's honor.

This, however, ignited all manner of political upheaval, which Corban fled by moving to his cozy little island.

But even the long trip across the Atlantic isn't enough to keep his problems from following him. On a warm summer day, a ship arrives bringing his sister-in-law, Arre, and her husband, Euan. Euan has run afoul of the powers that be back home and he wants Corban to return and sort things out--somehow. Ultimately, Corban agrees to return, but mostly because he wants to settle some blood debt to someone, somehow--I don't know exactly why.

And therein lies my 3-star rating. The Witches' Kitchen starts off very strong, with Corban and his two sons out fishing in their leaky hide boat. They haul in a huge catch and the boat promptly starts to take on water. Bailing water--water red with fish blood--brings sharks. Big sharks. It's all very exciting, especially since all of this takes place at a time when an iron tool is considered a luxury, and boats were sealed with tree sap.

But the story's focus doesn't remain with Corban and the boys, instead leaping to the Native Americans who live on the nearby mainland. Okay. Except, once Corban, along with the boys, leaves the island, there is a skirmish between the indiginous people and Corban's remaining kin and friends, and ... Corban's people then leave the island. The natives' POV drops away, only to be replaced with a variety of others, including a child's. Some of those POVs add to the story, but others, like the child's, seem included solely for sentiment.

Spoiler alert.
Even more annoying is the death of Corban's wife, Benna. Benna is one of the strongest characters in the book. She's an artist at time when art isn't much more than a few colorful decorations on stones. She seems to be a woman much in possession of her own opinions. In short, she's interesting. And the author kills her off in a very uninteresting way, (she pines away, a la Bella from Twilight, only Benna literally dies of a broken heart.) Well, she's sort of dead. Benna's ghost then travels to the British Isles where she does the poltergeist thing for Corban.

With the exception of Corban, the narrative spends entirely too much time on the least interesting characters in the story--Conn (Corban's son), Arre, Euan, etc.--largely ignoring the more intriguing characters like Corban's foster son, Raef.

I can't speak to the historical accuracy of the book, since what I know about history would fit in a thimble. But I found the ease at which Conn and Raef, two young, untrained, untested boys, take on and kill other men, rather ridiculous. Maybe the men they faced in battle were as green as they were, but the two rather easily take on boatloads of Vikings, dispatching them quickly, and emerging with no wounds themselves.

And yet...I finished the book. At times, I was very engaged with the story, even though I often didn't know what was going on or why. Eventually, I may go back and someday read The Soul Thief, the first book in the series.