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The Witching Time
Jean Stubbs
St. Martins Press, 383 pages

Design: A.D. Dingman
The Witching Time
Jean Stubbs
Jean Stubbs's many novels include Family Games, Kelly Park, Light in Summer, and Like We Used to Be. She has lived for more than twenty years in a cottage in Cornwall, England, with her husband.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

After seven years of happy marriage, Imogen Lacey's husband dies tragically in a traffic accident. Still grieving, Imogen renews acquaintance with an old friend, Alice Brakespear, who whisks Imogen off for a visit to Langesby, the North Country town where Alice's husband Hal is vicar of St. Oswald's church. There, Imogen discovers a mysterious circle of standing stones, and, touched by some primal power she can't explain, regains the determination to get on with her life. She settles in nearby Haraldstone, where she opens a shop to sell the extravagant hats she designs, and becomes friendly with the local crafts people, all of them women, and all -- it turns out -- witches.

Caught between her fascination for the witches' rituals and the pressures of the more conventional world of the Brakespears, Imogen agrees to act in an extraordinary production of an Elizabethan play which is being mounted to generate funds for St. Oswald's. The play is masterminded by the genial yet secretive Dr. Timothy Rowley, who, it quickly becomes clear, has his own mysterious agenda. In fact, all the people with whom Imogen is now involved are more than they seem: her leading man, Philip Gregory, director of a local home for youthful offenders; his one-time lover, Edith Wyse, who focuses her jealous malice on Imogen; and Mary Proctor, nurse and midwife, descendant of a long line of witches and said to be one herself. As the play moves closer to performance, tensions escalate between the players, and strange and sinister events warn that evil, in the form of sorcery much blacker than the magic Imogen has been dabbling in, is afoot.

The Witching Time takes that most quintessentially English plot setting, of a church parish and its vicar, and grafts onto it a tale of witchcraft and supernatural evil. It's an interesting amalgamation that might have worked better if the novel were either darker or more satirical. But, while Stubbs has an acute eye for the frailties of human nature (particularly the unwitting damage that can be done by thoroughly good people), characters and events are presented with barely a whiff of irony. And the evil, despite some contemporary trappings, ultimately boils down to a very English game of small-town social one-upmanship, putting me more in mind of Barbara Pym than Stephen King.

Essentially, this is light fiction. It touches on weighty themes but shies away from exploring them in depth, and is much more at home in the drawing room than on the heath. Philip, the magnetic villain, is by far the least convincing character, and his cohort Edith comes across as more of a social bully than the icy horror she is meant to be. By contrast, the white witches of Haraldstone are so nice as to be positively bland: a bunch of craft-making, Goddess-revering, New Age gals who like to shuck off their clothes and dance naked in the moonlight, but are basically just good neighbors. Stubbs's opening acknowledgments credit, among other books, Women Who Run with the Wolves; her witches, however, seem more likely to run with the Shelties.

Still, if you don't ask too much of it, The Witching Time is a diverting read. Stubbs has a graceful storytelling style and most of her characterizations are very sharp, with a nice appreciation for the ambiguities of human nature and the way people injure each other without meaning to. These edgy relationships are the best thing in the book, and keep the reader engaged long after the thinness of the supernatural element has ceased to please.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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