Thursday, 26 April 2018

Review: Basic Witch

Basic Witch Basic Witch by Harmony Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read an article entitled We Need to Start Taking Young Women's Love Stories Seriously, which gave me a lot to think about. I had that article in mind as I read this book.

Let's be clear upfront: this is not a book that intends to be taken seriously. It's fluff. It's cotton candy: bright pink, insubstantial, and not intended to satiate. It's written quickly to be read quickly, and it needs a good proofread (which I doubt it will ever get), not least to sort out the horrible mess that the author has made with missing and misplaced quotation marks. It's full of cliches, down to and including the first-person narrator checking out her reflection and getting the Power just when she needs it at a moment of crisis. Fortunate coincidences abound on every side. The heroine gets handed basically everything she wants, with little or no effort to earn it.

It is, in short, a wish-fulfilment fantasy - or perhaps we should say a witch-fulfilment fantasy.

And this, in itself, tells me a lot. More of that after this brief summary.

The heroine is a self-described "basic white girl". Her backstory is: Family all deceased, series of jobs she hates, series of failed relationships, lots of student debt. She is explicitly extremely ordinary and completely undistinguished.

As the story begins, she has fortunately inherited a New Age shop from a relative she didn't know she had, but is losing customers because she's not New Agey enough for their expectations.

By another stroke of luck or fate, she stumbles through a portal into a world where she's quite possibly the Chosen One, but definitely a powerful (if completely untrained) witch. This portal opens every seven years, very few people pass through, and there's no TV on the other side, but somehow slang and fashion are right up to the minute (in other words, there's no attempt at thinking through the extremely light worldbuilding).

Everyone (with one significant exception) wants to be nice to her. Just for showing up, she's set up with a profitable business, a place to live (which she gets to redecorate), a new wardrobe, high heels that don't hurt or cause her to trip, a handbag that isn't heavy no matter what she puts in it, a makeover, and a new instant best friend (who, despite her outgoing nature, doesn't appear to have any existing friends to complicate matters), and is surrounded by a plethora of hot single men. Also, her cat can talk to her now, and will live as long as she does. I have to admit I'd like that one myself.

See what I mean about wish fulfillment?

There's one complication: when she stumbled through the portal, she fell over a dead body, and she's a suspect in the murder. But only one person seriously suspects her. Sure, he's the local cop, but everyone knows he's an idiot, and they don't take much notice of him. It does, however, mean that she wants to clear her name by finding the actual murderer, something the cop is probably not capable of doing.

I thought about flagging some of what follows with spoiler tags, but to be honest, if anything in this book surprises you you probably aren't old enough to be reading it.

Any serious attempt to solve the mystery takes a back seat for a long time to being heaped with various kinds of gifts, which the heroine "deserves" after "all she's been through". When we do at last return to the mystery-solving in earnest, the heroine comes up with a plan which, while not exactly bad, is as transparent as a well-washed window, and is intended to get her suspect (the only person who hasn't been nice to her) out of the way so that she can search for clues. "It will be as easy as pie!" she says, then, "Spoiler alert: It was not as easy as pie."

Well, actually, spoiler alert, it was. Sure, her initial attempt to search the premises was thwarted, but she then (in a strong echo of how she came through the portal in the first place) discovers by pure luck an alternative way in, which also explains how the crime was committed, and she's able to find clear evidence almost immediately. Plus the suspect, who's crazy but not a complete idiot, has seen through the well-washed window and comes back and confesses. So as far as a mystery plot goes, it's more of a gesture in the direction of one than it is actually one.

As a wish-fulfillment fantasy, though, it's remarkably comprehensive, and that's what I found interesting.

Leaving aside the magical parts, apparently the dreams of a 30-something basic white girl include being given a lot of nice stuff that make her life comfortable and enjoyable, but which she doesn't really have to work for (because she deserves it); having a fun friend to go out with and lots of attractive men to talk about with said friend; and... here's the significant bit... having a man around who she's sexually attracted to, but who will stay with her, protect her, provide emotional support for her, sleep in the same bed with his arm around her, and will not push her to have sex (because it's against his principles). This is in distinct contrast with a male wish-fulfillment fantasy I started to read a while back; it just assumed that the attractive woman would naturally have sex with the hero. That's only one of the reasons I didn't finish it.

I'm in two minds about the whole lack of effort and struggle for the main character. On the one hand, by most rules of writing, this is bad writing and boring, but then, most rules of writing are laid down by men. Is it a bug, or - given that this is, after all, a wish-fulfillment fantasy - a feature? What tips me in the direction of "feature" is the thought that many people in general, and women in particular, are experiencing life in the United States at the moment as an unavailing and never-ending struggle, so the very lack of struggle is part of the wish-fulfillment.

I'm still marking it down to three stars, mind you. It's so utterly expected, so full of cliches, so clearly dashed off quickly to serve a market that, in my mind, it doesn't earn four stars, even though it's enjoyable enough for what it is. But it doesn't need to be a great book to give a degree of insight into the concerns of its target audience, and that is what I mostly gained from it.

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