“Payback’s a Witch” Delivers A Spellbinding Story

Magic gets an interesting new twist in the town of Thistle Grove

Photo by the author

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Spectacular title (and cover) aside, Payback’s a Witch drew my attention with its Goodreads tagline: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets The L Word in this fresh, sizzling rom-com.”

Have I seen either of those shows? No, I have not.

And yet… I couldn’t resist this book’s premise: Emmy Harlow returns to Thistle Grove after a devastating breakup results in a self-imposed exile following a devastating breakup. Her plan — arbitrate the traditional spellcasting tournament between the town’s central families, then get out again for good.

Once there, she discovers that her best friend and the stunning Talia Avramov were tangled in a love triangle with Gareth Blackmoore. Gareth just so happens to be Emmy’s heartbreaker and the scion of the esteemed family that has historically won the tournament and its magical privileges for years. The three hatch a John Tucker Must Die-esque plot to band together in the tournament and outwit Gareth, taking the mantle of victory from his family for the first time in several generations.

Add all this and a blurb from Emily Henry, one of my favorite writers, and I clicked “add to cart” so fast.

The first thing I look for in any good book about witches is a compelling and well-wrought system of magic. In this book, magic is bound to the city itself, and witches who leave it for too long lose their powers. You can also marry into magic, gaining powers of your own when you tie the knot.

The fact that magic dries up if you leave town for too long adds some complication to the fact that Emmy’s made her life in Chicago, away from Thistle Grove and thereby away from magic… only to return for the tournament and feel it rush back into her with all its ups and drawbacks.

This in itself is an interesting premise, but it’s even more specific than that. Each magic family has their own affinities — the Thorns are best with plants, the Avramovs with ghosts and spirits, and the Blackmoore’s with, um… power? That one I’m a little foggy on.

And then, there are the Harlows, whose magical affinity seems to be… bookkeeping. That, and arbitrating the magical tournament which decides who has the lion’s share of the town’s magic, along with bragging rights for a generation or so.

There’s definitely a bit of a “four types of kids” feeling here — spooky, bookish, plants, and bravado, if you catch my drift. In spite of this vague similarity, the magic system stands on its own and renders itself apart from any surface-level associations with another such four-house system.

The tournament itself is fun and interesting, with Emmy’s role as arbiter giving us an interesting picture into the inner workings of the spell that decides the challenges and tasks. It forces her to be an impartial judge, but that doesn’t stop her feeling some type of way about one particular scion. The magic on display gives us insight into what the witches can do, and how magic functions outside the day-to-day uses we see in between events.

There’s also a twist I won’t spoil, though I suspect jacket copy does because both myself and the friend I read it with predicted it a bit too easily, but suffice it to say, nothing goes quite to plan, which is exactly how any good magical tournament ends.

Magic aside, the book has compelling characters with complex and interesting motivations. And let’s not forget our main witch has not a cat, but a dog — another twist I enjoyed as a dog-owning witch myself.

I will say that the love interest, Talia, isn’t quite my cup of tea with the whole Slytherin temptress with a secret soft inside angle, but her connection with Emmy is believable and charming all the same.

The different families also have their parts to play, and I enjoyed getting to see how magic complicates and amplifies existing family and relationship dynamics for each of them. We even get to do a little communing with ghosts, since séances are Talia’s family’s specialty.

For me, ultimately the magic tournament and Emmy’s conflicted feelings about the town really took center stage, with the romance feeling like more of a B Plot that supports and complicates the novel’s primary conflicts.

This isn’t the first time this year I’ve had that thought, so much that I’m beginning to question how many books get primarily tagged as romantic comedies due to how popular the genre has become, when they might be better suited to different primary designations. Regardless, I can’t say it’s a flaw in the book itself, more in the marketing, but feel it’s worth mentioning.

In all, Payback’s a Witch is a fabulous fall read, and a magical book suited for any reason, really. I recommend it to fans of modern witches, magical tournaments, and Sapphic love stories.

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