'Brimstone' Burns Brightly, Despite A Few Flaws

Apr 11, 2017

There are roughly as many ways of imagining witches as there are ways of imagining women — and if our ideas about witches have changed over time, it's chiefly because of who's been allowed to do the imagining. A witch, after all, is a woman with power — and whether you imagine her as a warty-nosed hag, sexy enchantress, or community organizer with a wicked pack of cards probably says something about how comfortable you are with that notion.

Alice Dartle is a witch, from a long line of witches, but fortunate enough to have been born at the enlightened turn of the twentieth century. By 1920, the people of New England are no longer in the habit of burning gifted women — but wanting more out of life than to be tolerated, Alice decides to move to Cassadaga, Florida, where an organized community of clairvoyants and mediums seems to be thriving.

Her goal is to learn more about her powers and how to use them to help people — people like Tomás Cordero, a tailor and veteran of the Great War who returned from fire and bloodshed against all odds to find that his wife Evelyn had died of influenza while he was abroad. Haunted by the war, grieving his wife's loss, and beset by mysterious fires that seem to start themselves, Tomás comes to Cassadaga in search of healing and connection, only to inadvertently plunge the community into danger and chaos.

Brimstone is a deeply loving book. Cassadaga is a real place, with a real lineage of devastating fires, and the respect and affection for its history and residents glows from each page. Alice and Tomás are wonderful, warmly drawn characters: Alice's cheerful vivacity and Tomás' weary grief fit beautifully with each other, and moved me a great deal. Tomás, especially, often made my breath catch with sympathy, as he tries to make sense of life without his wife, and slowly grows obsessed with the possibility that she may be communicating with him through random acts of arson.

That said, as quickly as I fell in love with the characters and enjoyed their voices, the book's mechanics left something to be desired. Character motivations get muddled as the stakes rise, and the pacing stalls in the middle; Alice's confidence and drive seem to cede place to Tomás' problems in uneven ways, and solving the mystery of the fires often involves waiting for the characters to catch up to what the book has repeatedly made clear. All this contrived to make the ending feel rushed and a little too convenient — but the characters are just so lovable that I still felt satisfied.

Full of charm and care, with light-hearted fun woven gently into compassionate renderings of sorrow and loss, Brimstone is equal parts affectionate romp and affecting story — not least because, given the state of the world, it's good to read books in which hate is scarier than ghosts, love is stronger than hate, and witches simply refuse to burn.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

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