Book review: Melissa de la Cruz’ “Witches of East End”

I’ve been hearing about Melissa de la Cruz from some of my friends, and by all rights I should have checked her out months, even years, ago. After all, her “Blue Bloods” series – about teen vampires that run elite Manhattan society – has already sold close to 3 million copies. She’s also been part of other collaborative young adult (YA) works that sound interesting to me. Add to that the fact that she’s a Filipino – it’s a wonder that even my misplaced nationalism never compelled me to buy her books.

Whatever my reasons for not picking up any of her books before, that’s no longer the case now, as secret developments have made it necessary for me to familiarize myself with her work. There’s quite a lot to work with – there are already five books in the “Blue Bloods” series, with two more on the way – so I decided to start with the book that had the least baggage: “Witches of East End”, her latest novel. “Witches” is the first in the Beauchamp family series, and is de la Cruz’ first novel aimed for adults.

“Witches of East End” follows the story of the Beauchamps, a family of three women living in the fictional town of North Hampton. On the surface, the three women are just like your everyday suburbanites: Joanna, the matriarch, maintains a vegetable garden and constantly remodels and renovates the Beauchamp family home; Ingrid, the eldest sister, is the town librarian struggling to keep the library open in the face of an unsupportive town mayor; Freya, the youngest of the three women, is a bartender about to marry the love of her life.

Of course, the women are more than they seem. The Beauchamps are immortal witches, cursed to live their lives without the use of their magic because of the horror they visited upon themselves and their kind during the Salem Witch Trials. Centuries have passed since they’ve been able to last use the powers at their command, and the three women are chafing under the restrictions placed upon them.

However, when strange things begin happening all over town, the three women begin to question the wiseness of their decision. Should they take a chance and use their magic to help out the people around them? Or should they hide their true selves so that they can save their own skin?

Having no idea what I would get from Melissa de la Cruz, I went into “Witches of East End” with minimum expectations. At the very least, I was hoping to be entertained. If it blew me off my feet, then all the better. And early into the work, it looked like de la Cruz was really on to something.

I loved, for instance, the way de la Cruz re-imagined witches as something more than just human beings manipulating otherworldly powers. In her universe, the witches come from an even more mythical bloodline, and the trouble they face extends beyond just an excitable community of local fishermen.

De la Cruz also shows some skill in building up her world, taking her time and establishing some local color while slowly ratcheting up the tension as the three witches test the limits imposed upon their use of magic. By doing so, de la Cruz manages to infuse immediacy to a plot that sometimes seems to move at a glacial pace.

However, the problem with subtle world-building and slowly increasing tension is the fact that the reader is made to feel that there is going to be a huge pay-off to come at the climax of the novel. As de la Cruz began to pull the threads together near the end of her novel, I was expecting a dramatic encounter between the novel’s conflicting characters.

It is at this critical point in the story that this witches’ brew turns sour. Rather than an emotional, dramatic, or exciting resolution, the novel’s conflicts are resolved with an information dump that de la Cruz doesn’t even have the decency to couch within a magical or physical confrontation. For all the elaborate set-up de la Cruz had throughout the novel, she flounders at bringing everything together in a satisfying manner.

Aside from a clumsily executed resolution, “Witches of East End” also suffers from a tacked on set-up for the next book in the series. Aside from the fact that the set-up seems hastily put together, it’s hard to get excited for the next book when the first one ended so disappointingly. The succeeding book in the series would have been better served by a better written conclusion to this one.

I don’t know about the quality of the books in the “Blue Bloods” series, but “Witches of East End” has certainly not been a nice introduction to her work for me. While it’s far from being the worst book I’ve read this year, it’s doubly frustrating and disappointing than the outright bad ones because “Witches” has so much potential to be great.

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