Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Cherie Dimaline never fails to enchant and VenCo is the start of something spicy, warm, and wicked. At least, I hope so. The prologue features three bad-ass hipsters collectively known as the Oracle—the Maiden (a Tender), Mother (a Watcher), and Crone (a Booker)—who reveal the stakes and premise. A sixth witch must be found and once she is, she’ll have seventeen days to find the seventh witch and complete the circle. In case you missed it, VenCo is a play on Coven. “She better be some kind of living-at-Hogwarts, spell-work-in-her-sleep legacy witch,” says the Maiden.
What sets Dimaline’s work apart is her original and impeccable writing style, which is both literary and lyrical, casual and raw, as befits the characters and situation. Vivid descriptions of urban grit pepper the pages, along with references to pop culture, and symbols such as little yellow witchy birds. In this magic carpet ride of a romp, we fly to various locations: Toronto, Salem, the California desert, and New Orleans. Chapter headings are casual, detailed, and comic. For example: “A Complete F* 180 over General Tso Chicken and Shitty Rice.”
I feel like the first half of this book offers a crucial backstory to a series and world-building as Dimaline introduces the members of VenCo, and we hear their individual tales. Circles within circles, stories within a story. We begin with protagonist Lucky St. James and her charming, dementia-prone grandmother, Stella Sampson. After her Métis mother dies a drunk, they are about to be evicted from their grotty home in East End Toronto when Lucky finds a key to a hidden basement room in her wet laundry. When she unlocks the door, she discovers a dirty, rocky, tunnel, and inside it, a tiny silver spoon engraved with a Halloween witch and the word SALEM. Lucky is the sixth witch. The other five: Meena Good and her Anishinabe partner Wendy; blond, gender-queer Freya; artist and rare-book collector Morticia from New York; and Louisiana Creole woman Letitia and her son, also joined the coven via enchanted spoons. Freya offers Lucky a writing job at VenCo and with nothing to lose, Lucky and Stella drive to Salem where they join the others whose personal tales are embedded within the larger narrative.
Jay Christos (obvious play there) is the smarmy antagonist taxed with stopping the coven from forming and keeping the Patriarchy in place. This immortal, bisexual, misogynist, Benandanti (witch hunter/killer) hunts at night through streets and dreams, and has mesmerizing skills of his own. Once he starts to move on Lucky, things heat up. This is a feminist kind of book; at least the job of VenCo is to “Hex the Patriarchy” of whom JC is the kingpin. This matriarchal coven has much work to do, enough to fill several more novels. With shades of Thomas King and Eden Robinson, this book will delight and enchant with its quirky, irresistible characters.
A member of the Georgian Bay Historic Métis Community, Dimaline is an Indigenous Canadian writer. Her YA book, The Marrow Thieves, won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2017, was named Book of the Year by CBC, Quill & Quire, the NY Public Library, and was selected by Time magazine as one of the top 100 YA reads of all time. She followed it with the disturbing sequel, Hunting by Stars. Her stand-alone novel Empire of Wild was Indigo’s #1 Best Book of the Year and was featured in the New Yorker and the New York Times. Without giving too much away, “f* you” is the last phrase in VenCo. That takes courage and a certain amount of bravado.
Published by Random House Canada, 2023
W. L. Hawkin is a genre-blender who writes the kind of books she loves to read—mystery/thriller/fantasy/romance. She publishes with Blue Haven Press.