The Patriot Witch is the first book in the Traitor to the Crown series, an alternate history set during the American Revolution. It is, one gathers from a front-cover blurb, a “secret history,” meaning the story is about the hidden magical underpinnings beneath known historical events, and the history is clearly well researched. (This is not surprising: the author is a professional researcher.) Finlay weaves in significant events and characters from the opening days of the revolution, making the history central rather than merely a backdrop to his imaginary characters’ lives. Fear not, however: this book is not a history text but a lively adventure and the opening moves in a love story.
The Patriot Witch has a lot going for it. It is smoothly written, with a highly readable if not staggeringly original voice, and the protagonist, a minuteman named Proctor Brown, is an engaging young man with a delightfully dry sense of humor. Finlay’s research stays mostly in the background where it belongs, informing the world without cluttering the story up with unnecessary details, and he does an admirable job of using the real history to shape his plot while still giving his characters the room they need to follow their own story. The “secret” history dovetails nicely with the known events, which is a lot harder to accomplish than it seems. The sense I got was of an author who knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, and who had the skills to achieve it. In many ways, this is an intelligent book.
The secret history does suffer somewhat from the limitations of the genre, however. The basic philosophy seems to be that although events play out as we know them to have done, they are only the mundane surface to the hidden magical goings-on. I suspect we are meant to come away with that giddy feeling that it might really be true. Maybe it really did happen that way! And perhaps it is more my limitation as a reader than the limitations of the genre that leads me to wonder, if magic really did exist, and presumably always has existed all the way back to … when? the cavemen? did Neanderthals die out because they couldn’t do magic and Cro-Magnon could? … then history would not have played out just the same. Not really. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine why the shamans and the priests wouldn’t have come to rule the world.
But I suppose that’s just my innate skepticism coming to the fore, which really is, now that I think about it, a limitation in a fantasy reader. I actually rather like Finlay’s take on magic, which, at least among the good guys, is determinedly based on prayer. It seems to partake of genuine back-country magic and religion, giving it both a folksy and a historical feel. And I like his characters, too, who are as quirky as their magic. Proctor Brown’s earnestness is nicely balanced by his tongue-in-cheek wit; for some reason his sense of humor struck me as being quintessentially American in the best kind of way. And I particularly liked the fact that although Proctor is clearly hero material, a strapping young man trained as a minuteman (the Rangers of the colonial militia), he is becomes gradually and believably disenchanted with violence throughout the course of the novel, which gives the book an interesting moral dimension. Admittedly, the bad guys are a bit thin, villainous in the best, or worst, traditions of the genre, but let’s face it, morality doesn’t always have to be that ambiguous.
Skepticism aside, my only real problem with this book is with its pacing. In his acknowledgments, the author thanks his agent and editor, who “nurtured the idea until it grew into several books.” Alas, the result is that it feels at times as though the story gets lost in meanders and backwaters of plot. Although the novel is not at all lacking in incident, and the author certainly does not bog us down in endless descriptions or internal monologues, I finished the book with the sense that we had hardly scratched the surface of the wider story. Who are the bad guys and what exactly do they want? What are the good guys going to do to stop them, and what do they want the end result to be? And although it seems fairly clear that Proctor and the Quaker witch Deborah are destined for romance, we have likewise barely made a start on that relationship. For an impatient reader, the feeling that this entire 300+ page novel is just an introduction to the main events might be frustrating. But for a reader with a leisurely mindset looking for a nice new series, The Patriot Witch may well be the opening course of a pleasurable feast.