Spells of Blood and Kin, by Claire Humphrey
Posted July 6, 2016on:
published June 2016
where I got it: received review copy
Spells of Blood and Kin was mentioned in my recent 5 Books, 50 pages blog post. Of the books mentioned in that post, this was the only book that I had a tough time stopping reading at exactly 50 pages. In fact, by the time that blog post published, I was halfway through Spells of Blood and Kin, and finished it 48 hours after picking it up. I couldn’t put this book down, I didn’t want to put this book down, I was late to work because all I wanted to do for 2 days was read this book. If you’re a fan of dark fantasy, of stories that have weight and depth and sensuality and secrets and consequences, this is a book for you.
We all know those fantasy authors who write in a fashion to make their novels longer, because an epic story should have an epic number of pages, or something. Short story authors do the opposite – often self-editing their work towards making their prose more effective in fewer words. Claire Humphrey is a well published short story author, and you can see her short story composition skills on display in Spells of Blood and Kin. What I mean by that is there is not a single unnecessary word or scene in this book. Every scene, every conversation, and every paragraph is honed down to a sharp reflective edge, increasing the effect of the words, pushing the reader to engage with the story in a more intimate and imaginative fashion. That was a lot of fancy talk to say Humphrey is a damn good writer. Spells of Blood and Kin opens with a surprising and unnerving sentence, dives right into the compelling intricacies of the plot, and runs from there. Like with most books, everyone is going to have a different reaction to this book, and much of my personal interaction with this book happened between the lines, in what Humphrey left unsaid.
So, what’s this story about? Lissa’s grandmother Iadviga has just passed away. In a stunned state of grief, the funeral is planned, the church ladies bring piles of food to the house, and Lissa starts going through her grandmother’s things. Not only is Lissa inheriting the house and the debt, she is also inheriting her Baba’s responsibilities among the traditional Russian families in a community surrounded by the cosmopolitan bustle of Toronto. On the night of Iadviga’s death, the spell she had been weaving and reweaving for over 30 years collapsed.
For her Baba’s funeral, Lissa was allowed to enter the church building, but not allowed to be in the sanctuary. Because while the church will tolerate the community’s need for witchy women, magic practitioners are not allowed on consecrated ground. With one hand the community shuns Lissa and her family, while placing orders for magic eggs with the other hand.
Yes, this book has magic eggs, and I love the practicality of how Lissa just goes and buys six dozen regular eggs from the grocery story, imbues them with magic, and then people eat the eggs. She takes orders like a Tupperware lady (6 eggs for your husband’s rheumatism, 6 eggs for fertility, a dozen for restful sleep, etc). The magic combined with day to day practicalness was as entertaining as it was refreshing. This is also exactly the kind of magic I love to find in books – magic that takes commitment, magic that exacts a cost. Imbuing the eggs with magic takes time and spiritual commitment, and can only be done at the full moon. Lissa can look forward to a life of isolation, a secretive life on the edge of the community. Everyone needs her, but no one wants to be her friend. And magic done at a different phase of the moon exacts an entirely different cost.
This is where I started having a conversation with myself about everything Humphrey left unsaid: The skills passed down in Iadviga’s family are older than religion, a different type of bargain than prayer. Does this imply there are things people want that they know they shouldn’t pray for? Does it imply we feel the need to purchase certain services, rather than pray for divine intercession? Western religion vs magic – I can’t help but be fascinated by the interplay and how they’re never quite mutually exclusive. Lissa fills orders for eggs that will help with sleepless nights, or infertility, or arthritic pain. Maybe it’s not what the person wants (cure for insomnia, to get pregnant, etc), maybe it’s more about who they feel comfortable going to for a remedy. I could go on about just this for far longer than anyone wants to hear about . . .
Anyways, about that spell that broke at the moment of Baba’s death. Over 60 years ago, a madman named Maksim saved Iadviga’s life. In 1982, he asked for payment, and she obliged with a spell that would temper his nature. Nearly immortal, Maksim has been able to hide in war ridden parts of the world for most of his life. In bloodlust he has the strength of ten men, destroying everything and everyone in his path, and rarely left with a memory of what he’s done. It’s amazing to be so strong, so powerful, to heal quickly, to be better and faster than those pathetic normal human beings, to be kin, right? But he’s old enough to see the weakness of what he is, to understand that his nature makes his life so much more difficult, instead of easier. To survive in the modern world, he needs Iadviga’s help. She never tells him what it will cost her. And now that she’s dead, Maksim has come for Lissa’s help.
Not only does Maksim need help with his own nature, he may have infected another with his “illness”, and he needs help finding this young man and helping him understand what’s happened to him. There are a lot of plot threads (and flashbacks!) happening in Spells of Blood and Kin, and Humphrey ties them all together neatly and seamlessly. This isn’t a long book, so the artfulness of how it is put together is practically an engineering marvel.
Most have you have heard me bitch about my dislike for violence in books. It’s not that I dislike violence, it’s that I dislike violence that is there just for violence’s sake, for shock value, or to prove to the reader the physical strength of a character. Those types of scenes tend to bore the shit out of me. So let me tell you about the violence in Spells of Blood and Kin and why it’s exactly the kind of violence that keeps my attention.
Maksim has a long backstory with his companion Augusta (she goes by Gus). While they are not lovers, they do need each other and have often lived together. Possessed by the same nature, one way to get their frustrations out is through physical violence. Fast healers who can’t bleed to death, there are plenty of scenes of Maksim and Gus basically beating the crap out of each other. It sounds awful, but they can’t actually harm each other, and if they are beating each other up, they aren’t beating up normal humans. Their physical interaction isn’t sexual, but there is a private sensuality to it, a deep intimacy. It feels like foreplay towards . . . . something. This is the powerful dark, sensual kind of violence I prefer, and it is hard to find. This is one of those things women aren’t supposed to admit that we like, it’s a similar feeling i suppose, as choosing to go to a local witch for a particular remedy rather than explaining your situation to a physician. Ladies, I bet you know what I mean. Gents, sorry but I’m not going to explain myself.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the plot of Spells of Blood and Kin. But that’s ok, because I think I’ve succeeded in telling you how much you’ll find under the plot of this compelling and addictive book. I look forward to devouring more fiction from Claire Humphrey.