Witch’s Brew: The Spellspinners of Melas County (Heidi Kling)

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What’s Cool from Coliloquy: In Witch’s Brew, Lily and Logan’s fate is already decided, but Heidi explores several different possible pathways for how they get there. She shares scenes that wouldn’t normally fit in a book format and gives readers more precious moments between the two young lovers. As the series progresses, you’ll see some normal narrative forms, interspersed with smaller scenes, alternate points of view, and a lot of “what if” scenarios. (Source.)

Coliloquy was a company creating interactive ebooks for the Kindle, which was semi-recently sold to digital publishing platform Vook. Witch’s Brew is the first book of a YA fantasy line of theirs. I’d encountered some articles about Coliloquy in the past, which made it sound as though the main selling point of the platform was that it was able to deliver reader metrics, not that it supported a significantly richer or different reading experience than other interactive fiction platforms out there.

The premise of Witch’s Brew is that the teenage witch Lily is preparing for the Gleaning, a mystical contest/battle against an evil warlock. Long ago light magic was apportioned to witches and dark magic to warlocks, and the Gleaning makes possible a redistribution of powers, which everyone apparently accepts is necessary even though the witches and warlocks who lose are Never Seen Again. But when Lily meets a breath-takingly sexy teen warlock who is able to speak to her telepathically, she begins to question whether she has been told the whole truth, and whether she and her hunky counterpart might not be the key to saving the future of magic. There are enchanted tattoos.

Side-characters include the beautiful, wise, shape-shifting mother figures of the coven (though there are some hints that all may not be completely as it seems there); Logan’s voodoo-using warlock buddy Chance (seemingly sort of a nice guy, though he doesn’t get a lot of character development); Lily’s angelic little sister Daisy, whom I could not stop picturing as Dawn Summers; and Jacob, the lead warlock, who has red-rimmed eyes, exhales toxic dust, and eats eggs whole, like a snake. He runs a pharmaceutical company, in case you weren’t sure of his moral alignment.

Here are some representative quotes:

“Girls,” she addressed us with flashing Indigo eyes, “join me, please.”

After the long hike, the magic eucalyptus smacked my system like a jolt of espresso.

The smell of beer mixed with the jubilant sounds of teenage revelry…

It’s a genre exercise, and it’s directed at people who fantasize about moody 16-year-old boys with chiseled abs and about being able to speak magical Gaelic. I wouldn’t say that it’s quite as far out of my preference zone as zombie horror, but this is not a genre where I tend to hang out just to enjoy the scenery, and this book is very much for people who do want to linger there. The marketing quote above is actually a pretty clear explanation of what interactivity is for in this book: giving you more “precious moments” between Lily and Logan.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 11.37.45 AMIn comparison with most of the CYOA books I cover here, the plot graph for Witch’s Brew is startlingly simple: there may be as few as two choices in a given playthrough, with one of those choices being “do you want to go back to the last choice point or continue to the ending?” Chapters elapse in between choice points. The viewpoint skips back and forth between the witch Lily (narrating in first person) and the warlock Logan (narrating in third person). Perhaps this is just me, but I always find this disorienting: I’d prefer first person for all narrators and a really clear indication of when we’ve swapped, or else third person throughout, but the first/third switch just leaves me feeling as though I don’t understand the metafiction of how this story is being told.

When the choices do occur, they are choices not about what the protagonist should do, but about what should happen to her: does Lily encounter Logan on a mountaintop, or does she wake up alone afterwards? One could argue that at this moment the reader is really making a choice about what Logan will do (wake Lily, or not?) but the reader hasn’t actually met Logan at this point, and the choices aren’t framed as his.

This low-agency interaction design is matched with low-agency plotting in general. A lot of things just coincidentally happen to Lily: she runs into the warlock, she happens to encounter him again on another occasion, she is magically drawn to discover a certain book in the library that tells her about the magic apocalypse her kind are facing, and then she’s dragooned into participating in an enchantment by the elders of her coven. There are a handful of times where she gets to try to do something herself on her own initiative, but mostly she is a pawn of sparkly magical fates.

Quite similar things happen no matter what you do with the narrative branch points, therefore: if Lily doesn’t meet Logan at first, then she meets him later, under slightly different circumstances. A lot of the same scenes happen in all paths, though occasionally you get a different point of view on something depending on how you reached it. Some fun moments arise from this: it can be entertaining to review a scene and find out more about characters who weren’t the focus the first time around, for instance.

As a multiple viewpoint exercise, though, Witch’s Brew is not nearly as systematic or developed as a number of others I could name: it’s not very tightly under the reader’s control, and the extra information we get from re-reading a scene from a new angle is usually mostly flavor, rather than a total recasting of the meaning of that interaction.

This is also part one of a line, so it ends on a big cliffhanger. One presumably must buy book two (and more?) in order to find out what happens. I wasn’t moved to do so.

Possibly in a later book or books this gets better, but I had a really hard time with the moral simplification of the world-building in Melas County. Warlocks pursued power, and are evil; also, they own mean dogs and get ugly as they age. (Luckily Logan is both magically different from the others and young enough to be pre-uglification.) Witches are eternally beautiful and youthful, smell like flowers, like to heal things, and want to fit in with humans. As mentioned, in this book you get a tiny faint hint that some of the witches may have more complex and morally dubious motivations, but as a way to build a believable culture and compelling characters, this makes “all the evil characters get sorted into Slytherin House” look like a masterstroke of nuance and plausibility.

Disclosure: I bought a copy of this work with my own money.

3 thoughts on “Witch’s Brew: The Spellspinners of Melas County (Heidi Kling)

  1. I’m sure it’s not just you, but I actually do prefer to have, at most, one first person narration. More and I find it hard to distinguish the different voices, and I don’t find the switch from first to third too distracting. That said, my preference for multiple viewpoints definitely is for them to all be in third person.

  2. Pingback: Lithomobilus / NonBinary Review / The Strangely-Browne Episode | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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