I really enjoyed Secondhand Spirits: A Witchcraft Mystery, the first book in Juliet Blackwell's Witchcraft Mystery series featuring Lily Ivory. I found it well-plotted and well-written and was particularly impressed with its stellar characterizations. I was anxious to see if Blackwell could continue to impress me with book two.
Happily, the answer is "yes". Not only did Blackwell not disappoint, she drew me deeper under her spell with A Cast-off Coven. I am declaring myself a fan.
As the story begins (only a week after the events of Secondhand Spirits conclude), odd sounds, ghostly footsteps and doors opening and closing on their own have students from the San Francisco School of Fine Arts spooked and stopping into Lily's vintage clothing store in search of protective talismans. At her assistant Maya's request (and in exchange for some Victorian clothing recently found at the school), Lily agrees to check things out and attempt to calm the students' fears. Instead she finds a dead body and comes across evidence that has her wondering if someone at the school has summoned a demon.
A Cast-off Coven is a solid mystery and a nicely creepy ghost story with moments I found somehow reminiscent (in feeling) of the old Julie Harris - Claire Bloom film "The Haunting" (which is #1 on my official list of "Movies That Scared the Heck Out of Me When I Was A Kid and Still Pretty Much Freak Me Out Even Though I Am Now All Grown Up"). The story is wonderfully paced and plotted, with touches of humor, strong friendships and possibilities of romance.
Enhancing that plot is Blackwell's ability to take pieces of myth and legend that seem at least vaguely familiar and twist them just enough to make them seem new and - in most cases - more intriguing. Her depiction of Lily's craft has depth and a degree of detail that make it seem believably real and it comes across as an essential part of Lily rather than something she "practices". Simply put, the paranormal world of A Cast-off Coven really works for me. And Lily, while she knows a lot about this magical world, also knows that she has a lot to learn. This helps make Lily accessible to us and we are allowed to learn alongside her.
Blackwell also does a terrific job of making San Francisco come alive. Her rich descriptions enable me to "see" the city and deepen my determination to visit it someday soon. Elements of the city's history - including the Great Earthquake of 1906 - have been woven into the story.
However, as with Secondhand Spirits, it is the wonderful characters that really pulled me into A Cast-off Coven. I like these people. I admire many of them. And I am intrigued by all of them. These are smart, strong, complex and interesting characters with layered histories that Blackwell is revealing to us bit by bit. This slow reveal keeps me on my toes while reading because I never know when another fascinating little detail about someone will be made known to me and I don't want to miss anything. There is so much we have yet to learn about each and every one of them that I can only hope Blackwell has many, many more volumes in the series planned. But whether it's one book or ten, I am so there.
I'm also going to give Blackwell's other stuff a try. I have ordered If Walls Could Talk: A Haunted Home Renovation Mystery (Haunted Home Repair Mystery), the first in her new series which is due to be released in December, 2010. And sitting in my TBR pile is Feint of Art (Annie Kincaid Mysteries, No. 1), the first in a three volume mystery series she co-wrote in 2006/2007 with her sister, Carolyn, and published under the name Hailey Lind.
I highly recommend both Secondhand Spirits and A Cast-off Coven. Enjoy!