Book Review: Payback’s A Witch

Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn’t been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.

But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She’s determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.

On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in?

But most concerning of all: Why can’t she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?

Back of the Book

This is my SPOILER-FREE Book Review for

Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper

I intend to use the ***ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.

This review was cross-posted over at the Fresno LGBT News Link website under the “Book Flow” tab. under “More”

I have been writing book reviews for years and one of the main things I strive for is to stay “spoiler-free.” I want to give you enough information about a book that you can make the choice to read or skip because it is the best choice for you. Obviously, not all books are for all people. And that’s fine! That is what book reviews are for… to help you find your next favorite book. But getting the ending ahead of time would be a bummer. Thus my goal of spoiler-free.

Some books, however, seem to want to spoil themselves. Or rather, some genres are more likely to be predictable than others. Such is the case in this book, but I will do my best. 

As is my custom, I will use my ASPECT method for this review. 

A / Atmosphere (Tone)

Between the cover art and the back of the book blurb, you pretty much know exactly what you are getting into when you pick up this book. It is light. It is whimsy. It is clearly a “romance” with all the benefits and drawbacks that genre entails. (If you read romance, you know very well what tropes you can expect to find here, and if you don’t read romance, keep reading this review and I will lay it out for you further down.) 

There are no real surprises, the carnal interludes are fairly PG13, and, most importantly, there are quite a few time/place references and pop culture allusions that center this story in the now, the right now (or more specifically 2021). There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it does mean that there is a built-in expiration date for a lot of the jokes, banter, and characterizations. 

The other part of “Tone” is world-building. This is a world with both real and pseudo-magic, and that world is fun. It is like urban fantasy but in a lighter gentler more made-for-TV movie sort of way. It’s cute even if it is overly simplistic. There are four types of magic, that are used in very broad strokes to create four types of characters, houses, businesses, fashion aesthetics, etc. It is like the sorting hat from that series that shall not be named decided to not limit itself to four color combos… but decided to magically infuse every aspect of the students with their house mannerisms. So now all Ravenclaw students are purple-skinned and they all major in library science and every single one of them is always carrying around at least six books perched on the top of their heads…. My point is that there is no subtly to the magic families or their trappings in this book, and while that can be fun, it can also be annoying. 

S / Style

Continuing that thought… Harper writes in a clear straightforward manner. You could almost say her writing is conversational. There are no big words, no real deeper meanings to anything, and no paragraphs that benefit from being reread. In other words, it is a simple enough story told in a simple enough sort of way. IE, a quick read. 

What saves this book from being overly simplistic to the point of boring, are the descriptions. Harper has a gift for language even if she saves it for her landscapes, for her set pieces, and for the physical (clothing included) descriptions of a few key characters. Not all the characters or settings however get the attention, which is a shame. One glaring example is the bit where our protagonist, Emmy, is having trouble deciding what to wear – a common problem faced by many of us while getting ready for a first date- and Harper gives us several fun paragraphs about why Emmy is anxious but then we are not actually told what she ends up wearing. Her date’s outfit, on the other hand, is described in almost verbose detail. A different writer might have used this scene as a chance to flesh Emmy out more because what a character is wearing can be a useful tool to show the reader who that character is… and juxtaposing Emmy’s outfit (that she only succeeded in putting together after much angst) with the outfit of her date, could be very telling and interesting. But in this case… it just… wasn’t there. There are other examples of this lopsided (in some cases one-sided) use of descriptions and it was frustrating because, again, Harper is gifted in terms of descriptive details… when she chooses to write them.

P / Plot-Pacing 

Our characters are in their early to mid-20s and yet this book read like YA. I’m not sure if that is because YA shares so many of the same tropes as the romance genre, or if I am just old. (Honestly, either could be true.)

So there is a plot. It is… a straightforward sort of plot. There are a handful of expected tropes, and then a (not at all surprising) subplot of romance that is connected to the main plot. That romance plot moves along at plot-speed with the expected ebbs and flows and the eventual fight/misunderstanding/dramatic moment happening after the intimacy moment and right before the first plot’s climax. And yes… this romantic hiccup will affect the big plot and then… well, I said spoiler free, right? But you know, We all know. The plot for the romance novel is not ever the point. We all just know that going in.**

So let’s move on to what sets this romance novel a bit out of the total basic basicness of basic…

C / Characters


That’s right! The love story in these pages is between two women! And.. my little bi heart can’t help but gleefully point out… between two BI women! Extra fun: they bond over the crap behavior of a dude they both slept with. I mean… forget the rest of this book, the setup, the magic, everything…. Is that not the secret dream of at least half of the sapphic women out there? Ahem.

“Coming out” as a concept is just not here. (Which might be the least believable part of this magical book about sapphic witches, but hey, it is a make-believe world and who am I to quibble?) The queerness of these characters is never called out, questioned, challenged, or really dealt with… except that it’s two women who fall in love. Hooray!

They are also witches. Which is fun. Again, the book is pretty upfront about all this from the jump, so no real surprises. 

As is common in the genre of romance (and in YA) there is not a lot of character development but there is a fair bit of personal drama and angst. And while the characters are interesting and their fashion senses are extremely on point, I will say that I wanted more. It seemed like Harper really liked a few of the characters more than others and we got a lot more details about them. The characterization of the antagonist was also a bit weak. It is like Harper didn’t want to make him evil, the women had been with him after all, but also didn’t really give us enough to actively hate him the way the women did. We are told he is awful but there seems to be little explanation beyond some douche-level bad behavior. And there is a subplot about the evils of capitalism, our villain is a capitalistic businessman, that seems tacked on to flesh out how truly bad he is, but actually made me want to roll my eyes at our intrepid overly naive scorned women. Yes, capitalism sucks. But this was the weakest part of everyone’s characterization. 

Honestly, the best thing our main character, Emmy, has going for her is that she is our main character and -for me- she is a sapphic sort of witch. Her struggles of “where do I belong” and “what should I do with my life?” were just blips on the plot radar and seemed like manufactured drama for the sake of manufactured drama. She was not an overly likable character, and I am not really sure why she inspired such lust from the mesmerizing Talia. Based on the way that author Harper drools over every aspect of Talia, I have to wonder if there is a bit of author insert somewhere along the line. 

I don’t know if I just didn’t care about Emmy’s problems because they were stupid problems, because they weren’t written in a way to elicit sympathy, or because I knew that they would be solved by the end of the book and therefore not worth any of my personal angst. Whatever the case, I didn’t care. I was here for the magic and the sapphic love.

T / Why THIS Book?

It’s October. Halloween season is upon us and I don’t like horror books. When I saw this at Target, forever ago, I thought “Oh look! An inoffensively harmless little cute sapphic witch book… perfect for October!” And I was right. 

E / Entertaining

Why yes, I went a tiny bit out of order this time just to see if you were paying attention. 

I am actually going to combine this section with the next one…

Would I recommend it?

This book was exactly what it said it was. A fun holiday Hallmark movie in book form that featured sapphic witches in a romantic setting. 

There are no twists, no turns, and nothing overly memorable about the story. BUT the magic world that this story takes place in? Is inherently interesting. As I said before, Harper is great with descriptions and her world-building is pretty great as well. It is just… the story she has chosen to tell within this world is pretty blah, but blah in that “Sometimes I just want to drink my pumpkin spice late and to wear my chunky boots in peace, ok?” sort of way. 

It’s basic. But there’s nothing inherently wrong about being basic. (I say as I sip my vanilla latte because it’s not cold enough for pumpkin anything in these parts as of yet- at least not for me.) In fact, a lot of people like “basic” things like romance novels, and that is ok! If you like romance novels, if you like sapphic love stories, if you like cute small towns that are quirky and full of whimsy, if you like modern-day witches and vague magic mythos, if you like happy endings, if you like YA tropes,…. If you like any combination of these things, then this book is for you.

And if you want to look really, and I mean really, hard for a lesson about accepting yourself for who you are and not letting your past or your past relationships dictate your life… well, you might be able to find that here. I know it was supposed to be here. But honestly, the lesson was lost under the squee factor of sapphic witches falling in love in a tiny magic-filled midwest town. 

** There is also a plot point that is totally dropped more than halfway through the book which I was a bit miffed about until I was updating my Goodreads and I noticed that this is Book One in a series… so… I am guessing that other characters in this town are going to get their own (romance?) books that will deal with these forgotten plots lines. Which, is cool. I probably won’t be reading them, but, you know. More power to basic books!

*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This? Why did I read *This* book?

Thank you for your support!

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments or send me an email.

Published by kayliametcalfe

Queer,loudmouth,skeptical-agnostic-pagan,book addict,coffee lover,wine drinker, SAHM,writer,editor,producer,podcaster. -She/her

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