by Jennifer Cloud, paranormal (2004)
Liquid Silver Books, $5.95, ISBN 1-59578-051-3
Normally you would expect The Wicked Witch to be the hero's skanky ex-mistress, the evil stepmother, or the nasty hag reviewer who makes minced meat out of books that rely on these tired and unimaginative plot devices, right? Author Jennifer Cloud however doesn't make things easy for herself - The Wicked Witch in question is the heroine Orayna Falls, an only part human assassin trained by her incubus father to pick up human sinners and castrate them so that Aiken can pick up their souls. Whoa.
When she's not being a literal castrating bitch, Orayna is a freelance programmer. There's a joke in there somewhere, I'm sure. She lives alone apart from the company of a loyal henchman named Trenton who helps her clean up the scene of the crime like the loyal Igor that he is. When Peter Gretting shows up with the intention of hiring her for some project of his company, that's when Orayna's life becomes complicated. Peter is no prize - he has a girlfriend named Susan whom he is more than happy to cheat on with Orayna. This makes him a perfect candidate for her sickle, right? Ah, but things are never that simple especially when emotions get involved and everything becomes messy.
The Wicked Witch is a beautiful kind of profanity in action. Needless to say, I love what is happening in the story. Orayna's mother is a witch shunned by the other folks in the village back in the 1800s when she accidentally summoned an incubus whom she took to her bed. When Orayna was born, her mother defied her dark lover and fled with Orayna to raise Orayna alone in a manner that she felt was "right", (that is, as a Christian), until she caught a priest trying to rape the then-fourteen year old Orayna. She shot that bastard so that his gory corpse collapsed upon the young girl, and the two of them willingly embraced the darkside. Orayna really doesn't have a chance at embracing conventional morality as a result. At chance she may have at redemption was gone when she watched her mother being burned to death by townsfolks.
Peter, thinking that he's a gung-ho stud, happily charges into Orayna's bed, only to discover the bloody scythe after the grand event and run away in fear. Orayna of course gives chase. It's hilarious - this is such a typical set-up where the dumb jock in a horror movie sleeps with a demoness only to pay the price with his life, but the dumb jock in this particular story falls in love with the monster in the horror movie. Orayna isn't entirely a monster, though - the author makes it very clear that Orayna is what she is being that she, like her mother, has been a pawn of demons all her life and Orayna really doesn't know anything other than what she is raised to believe and do.
The Wicked Witch is a horror story, make no mistake about it, as much as it is a love story. There are demons and therefore some scenes that will send poor Aunt Agnes into a frenzy of crossing herself and praying for mercy on Jennifer Cloud's soul because these scenes are marvelously sacrilegious as much as they are creepy. I love watching horror films so I have no problems with these scenes - I love them, in fact - but I can't vouch for anyone else.
The build-up and the grand confrontation are nicely done - they have me at the edge of my seat. Because this book completely defies expectations and breaks nearly all the rules of the romance genre, I am actually not sure whether Orayna and Peter will end up together or even if they will survive the story. As a result, I am actually in suspense throughout the story. As entertainment, The Wicked Witch is grand fun. It's creepy, suspenseful, and hard to put down.
Conventional morality is thrown out the window. Orayna doesn't apologize for what she is and she isn't even "redeemed" in the conventional sense by the end of the book. This actually makes a lot of sense to me, given how Orayna is what she is. Ultimately, there aren't any shades of black and white here, so if you are looking for that kind of thing, you shouldn't be reading this book. The good guys here are the bad guys. The concept of love is twisted to the extreme here - Asmodeus, Orayna's father, loves the wife who is currently being tortured in Hell and she likewise has no regrets, Orayna accepts who she is and the possibility that she will either become a demon like her father or be roasted in Hell for all eternity afterwards, and Peter loves Orayna while knowing all this and more. I can only imagine how Thanksgiving will be like with these people.
I also adore the fact that Ms Cloud has the guts to put out a story of this nature. This is one story that has zero chance of being published by mainstream publishers unless it's marketed as horror, I suspect, especially when one consider how conservative the overall romance-reading community is. I mean, check out the reactions that would inevitably arise whenever an author puts out a story with a heroine who is an unrepentant non-virgin. I can only imagine the emails this author would get if the general Wal-Mart type crowd get their hands on this book.
The Wicked Witch is one of those books that have to be read in order to appreciate how right or wrong it is, depending on how you look at things. It's a fabulously entertaining read. The writing can be on the unpolished side at times, with odd skips in points-of-view within the same paragraph even occurring occasionally in this book, but that doesn't get in the way of my appreciation of this story. The romance, love, or whatever it is between Orayna and Peter is pretty twisted but Ms Cloud manages to make it work for me.
The only downside of this story, to me, is the inadequately developed aspects of the plot. Much of the machinations taking place against Asmodeus that end up with enemies striking at Orayna are ill-explained or said to take place off-stage, so to speak, so I have no idea why Orayna is so important to these demons. There are several odd transitions from scene to scene that are choppy, suggesting to me that some crucial scenes are cut out from the final version of this story without much effort being made to make these cuts less obvious. A villain's escape from Hell, for example, is brought up out of the blue that I have to scratch my head and wonder how that happened.
But choppy writing aside, I still adore The Wicked Witch. It's far from perfect and it could be improved with a hundred or so more pages to flesh out the plot, but the idea of this story is fabulous and the story is too fun to put down. This is a really enjoyable read in the most fabulously perverse manner and the horror movie fan in me really approve of this tale. If you want to experience a fun horror romance that pushes the theme of antiheroes to the limit, The Wicked Witch will be most wicked indeed.
By the way, any chance of Trenton getting some kind of happy ending? I really feel sorry for that poor loser. After all, he did what he did out of love, no?
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