|Ophelia & Abby
(creator: Shirley Damsgaard)
|Ophelia Jensen wishes she was just a typical thirty-something librarian, but unfortunately she has been burdened with psychic powers that she considers inconvenient at best and at worst downright dangerous. At first she denies that she is a witch but admits, "I have flashes, sometimes of the future, sometimes of the past. And I seem to be good at finding things". She does not really want "a gift to see beyond the world around us". And she would be happier without her terrifying dreams. She lives in the small town of Summerset in Iowa in a little Victorian cottage that she shares with her much-loved dog Lady (half German sheepdog and half wolf) and her disdainful cat Queenie.
Her parents are retired professors living in Florida, but she gets a lot of help and support from her grandmother, Abby, another witch - but they both know it is wise to conceal their psychic powers from the locals.
She describes herself as "reserved. Never once in my life have I been called 'bubbly'." She says," I've never considered herself pretty. My smile's nice, and I'd been told before my eyes are expressive, but the guy who told me that just wanted sex. No, I'm strictly average. Average height (actually 5ft 4in), average weight, average everything."
One day she hears herself described as, "Sort of prissy, real tight-lipped. Likes to boss people around .... She's kind of pretty, but you have to get past the prickly personality." She admits that "Over the past four years, I've worked hard at maintaining a cranky image so as to keep people at their distance." Why she felt this so necessary is connected with something traumatic that had happened to her four years before the events in the first book, after which she had spent time in a psychiatric ward. But as her friend Darci tells her, she was "a good person .... on the inside. You only pretended to be hard to protect yourself." She emerges as a very real person, although, as Abby reminds her, "You need to work on your people skills".
Abby (Abigail) Mc Donald is her kindly witch/herbalist grandmother, 73 years old when we first meet her, whom she adores. She has her own much more developed paranormal powers and can, for example, tell Ophelia what happened around her when Ophelia was unconscious. She does this by stroking the palms of her hands, explaining that "the subconscious continues to register information, even though we're not aware of it." She was, Ophelia says, "a picture of the perfect Grandma; if it just weren't for that witch thing". She was free with her advice, and "I'd learned a long time ago, ninety-nine percent of the time Abby was righty. It could be annoying."
Shirley Damsgaard explains that she had experienced marriage, children, and a career outside of the home with the United States Postal Service before, at the age of 48, she decided to try her hand at writing. Now seven years later, she still lives in the same small Iowa town where she has been for over twenty years, and still has a career as Postmaster. Her grown children, with their children, all live within driving distance. She has published numerous short stories, as well as the Ophelia and Abby series. She had long been interested in the occult but was, she explains, careful not to include any real spells in her stories. Too dangerous!
Witch Way to Murder (2005)
Helped by her glamorous assistant librarian Darci, who Ophelia discovers is not at all the dumb blonde she pretends to be, and by her grandmother Abby, Ophelia survives a string of catastrophes from the theft of bomb-making materials to the discovery of a corpse in Abby's backyard, and eventually tracks down the source of all the trouble. There is plenty of exciting action, as when Ophelia searches Rick's room in his (hoped for) absence, and it all makes a strong narrative.
Ophelia starts by telling Abby, "I don't believe in magick or in the old ways anymore". She feels such powers as she has had not saved the lives of either her previous boyfriend or her grandfather. But when she gets attracted to Rick, she does not scorn Abby's warning that she and Rick "were surrounded by an aura of danger". The only snag is that she can't be more specific! Abby "always has a premonition something's going to happen but can never seem to change the outcome". But this makes it seem all the more credible. However, it is a vision of her own that leads Ophelia to the solution of the mystery, and in the end, it is by conjuring up strange forces ("energy dancing" around her) that she saves her life.
Eventually she apologises to Abby, "I'm sorry I've scoffed at your magick all these years."
Altogether an interesting story with Ophelia's prescient powers treated in a reasonably convincing way. Let's hope she does not lose credibility by becoming a full-time witch in later books. Her relationship with Rick is not over-romanticised and in this first book the author does not trivialise the occult. Recommended.
Abby is attacked and ends up unconscious in hospital, and Ophelia turns to her old antagonist, police detective Henry Comacho, for help. She has to confess to him that she is a psychic (a witch, in fact) and does this by staging what she claims is not a trick but sounds very like one in which she "focused on the sky and called to the spirit of the hawk, wheeling on the currents above me .... I shut my eyes and imagined the strrength of those wings ... All at once I was with him, one with his spirit, and together we rode the air currents high above the earth. We swooped and dipped, without effort, through the clouds in a graceful dance." Once returned to earth, she looks at Comancho. "He was where I had left him, but his expression had changed. His sunglasses hung from his limp fingers and his jaw had dropped."
Meanwhile she becomes convinced that Brian's killer is now after her, and ends up getting involved in a desperate fight with the guilty party. The killer's motives sound wildly unlikely but it's all put down to the murderer being "pretty far around the bend to start with".
However the author is a good storyteller, and there are well described incidents as when a young, "brand-new police officer" is confronted by Abby and a bunch of other angry protesting senior citizens, incensed by the arrival of the pig farm, and blocking the road with their demonstration. Should he try to arrest all these "people old enough to be his grandparents"? In the end, watching the old people struggling to get up, he decides, "I'd better go help. Looks like some of them are having trouble getting up."
What is much less convincing is the increasing emphasis on Ophelia's occult powers. These were much better just hinted at, as sometimes happened in the first book, than described in detail, as here. It is all very well for Abby to tell her, "Your spirit guides are those who have chosen to help you, to guide you on your path. We all have them. They're the little voices in our ears, the thoughts that pop unbidden into our minds, our sudden inspirations. They won't tell you what to do. There are lessons you must learn on your own, but they will be there to help." But an old-fashioned conscience sounds more effective!
Ophelia starts reading runes with their ambiguous messages, and performs a weird ritual to invoke the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. "We do not worship the devil, we fight evil," she explains. "We don't fly on broomsticks. And another thing, we don't wear pointy hats either. We wear cowled robes." All rather disappointing really. Mind you, she proved quite right to distrust the person who had "holes in his aura". Sounds like good advice - if only you can spot those holes in time!
The Trouble with Witches (2006)
This sounds a promising start: one set of psychics investigating another could have made an entertaining story. But the way it turns out, there's no fun in it at all. Instead Ophelia and Abby come across an apparently disturbed 13 year old girl, Tink, who is said to have killed her mother several years before, so now lives with her odd relations, Jason and Juliet Finch, who are heavily into the psychic business, as is a Dakota Sioux who has the magnificent name of Walks Quietly.
After seeing ghost lights, Ophelia follows a hawk to an abandoned cabin , where she hears sibilant tones saying, "Let me take care of you. Everything you desire will be yours," before she passes out cold. As she later tells Abby, "Whatever's in there isn't just bad .... it's absolutely evil'.
Tink turns out to be a medium, but has been given a necklace of a red stone in a spider's web by someone trying to bind her powers: "The spider's web binds whatever the person who cast the spell stated in their attentions". Oh well, that explains everything, doesn't it?
Then there's trouble from "a disembodied spirit. Negative energy that exists outside of the realm we live in". What's needed is a positive charge - and Abby is just the lady to supply it. And Ophelia knows she has to protect herself with a lodestone: "First, I intended to charge the stone with the purpose of absorbing negative energy. My next step would be to write a bindrune - a group of runes connected together in such away that they created a design on the lodestone. The runes I selected would be those known for their powers of protection. I had a feeling I would need it." And so she did.
Even Walks Quietly turns out to have his own spirit guides, a wolf, a badger and a snow owl. And when Ophelia sees him, he isn't necessarily there: it is, he tells her, just his spirit walking.
It's all a load of nonsense, not helped by a melodramatic finale. Then it ends with young Tink going off to live with Ophelia. It seems that Rick knows the right people and promises to put in a word for her. No problem with Social Services then. All quite incredible. As Tink said earlier, "I don't like all this psychic stuff .... Hearing voices, feeling cold spots, seeing shadows that aren't there. It's crazy."
The most convincing parts of the story are those concerned with human relationships, such as those beween Ophelia and her moody almost adolescent foster child, and Ophelia's quarrel with old Abby who ticks her off for "sleeping with the moonlight in your face," and, even worse, "you pointed at it with your finger."
Ophelia's runes do not seem to give her very profound messages, although when one of her stones "seemed to glow from the inside", she explains "My eyes flew open. I've got it. The answer lies in Adder's past. Find out his secrets and you'll find justice." You would have thought she could have worked this out for herself.
But Ophelia had been "learning to control her abilities" so that "now the images didn't drift in and out unless I allowed them". But she isn't always all that quick on the uptake. When she meets dreaded biker Cobra (the bikers are all named after snakes) and notices a tattoo on his forearm of "a one with a percent sign after it.", she can't help asking him, "What's the one percent for?"
Ophelia quite rightly complains that although "flashing red lights kept going off in my head" she could not prevent the murder occurring.
There's a séance, complete with auras, hollow rappings, rattles, a crashing book and candles extinguishing themselves. "Quick, cold winds blew through the room, making the flame of the black candle sputter and almost die. Papers on my desk scattered into the air, as if caught by a whirlwind." But the only message from the murdered man, says Tink, is "He's not leaving until his killer is found."
The Witch is Dead (2007)
Meanwhile Ophelia is preparing to officially adopt 14-year-old Tink, the young medium they had rescued. But Dot, eager for adventure, wants to investigate the murder of a funeral director in the neighboring town, who seems to have been embalmed while still alive. Ophelia tries to dissuade her, but Tink's dog finds a skull in the woods - one that may belong to a murder victim.
Tink has been having visions of ghastly ghosts and imploring her for help: "Her energy must be a beacon to restless souls," explains Abby - but then Tink is kidnapped. The search for her takes Ophelia to a creepy crematorium where body harvesting (removing body parts for medical use) seems to be taking place. It was not for nothing that Tink had had a vision about bodies with missing parts! We know that Tink is bound to emerge unscathed - so the search for her, although it certainly holds the interest, is not quite as exciting as it might have been.
Ophelia's assistant librarian Darci, who usually pretends to be just a dumb blond, has surprisingly decided that she wants time off her library job to take college classes in general education then "go on and major in psychology" so that she can "open a women's shelter here in Summerset for women down on their luck". This means Ophelia must seek a part-time replacement for her, and the job goes to the ultra efficient Gert Duncan who weirdly keeps fingering her carved silver pendant. A bad sign that!
Ophelia goes off with Darci on a speed-dating evening (!) and is surprised to end up with an admirer who tells her he wants to sleep with her. When she feels "a smooth palm stealing up my leg," she "sensed it was time to get the hell out of there".
Ophelia has a pleasantly dry sense of humor as when Aunt Dot tells her that Tink's "got talent. The fairies like her. It won't be long until she sees them too." Ophelia thinks to herself, "Great, first ghosts and now fairies. Boy, was my home going to be crowded." But soon she's back consulting her runes again, getting the usual far from clear answers to her insistent questions, but, despite this, she knows "all would be well .... Never again would I be able to shut people out if my life and return to hiding behind my wall". So she carries on following suspects and snooping around their premises, eventually finding a basement full of rotten corpses. Those runes might have warned her ....
Despite a host of false trails, it's not too difficult to anticipate who the kidnapper really is. It's another wildly unlikely plot, but Ophelia remains quite an interesting and well-drawn character, particularly when she objects to the ambiguity of the magick messages she gets: "That is what I hate about all this psychic stuff." she says. "Why can't you just know what you need to know, without all the mumbo jumbo 'Here's a sign' crap." She's still doubtful too about "Aunt Dot and her fairies. A lot of bloody good help they've been". If only she could have been a little more sceptical about magick generally it might have added some spice to the stories - and made them more credible too.
The Witch's Grave (2009)
It all sounds very unreal, there is no sense of excitement and the "magick" bits seem increasingly silly. It is too much like a diluted version of the mixture as before.
The Seventh Witch (2010)
But somebody wants Abby dead. Could it be a rogue witch in Ophelia's own family? Or could it be the work of a vengeful rival witch desperate to settle a bittter feud that has lasted for many decades? And what is going on at the haunted Seven Stones?
It is not the sort of plot that anybody could take seriously and unfortunately it also lacks much humor or real dramatic action (although it has its melodramatic moments). It gets off to an unpromising start with a whole series of misprints on the gushing opening acknowledgements page: with is spelled wiht, you're is spelled your're, then the author goes on to thank her editors for having “made what could have been a difficult trasition easy". She spells book with an unnecessary capital B, and uses as many as eleven exclamation marks on the single page. Perhaps the much-praised editors never got round to reading this bit!
Romantic interest is provided by the return of secret agent Cobra (real name Ethan, who gets her all excited by giving her a big kiss, after which she is advised by young Darci to “let him pursue you, but at the same time, let him know that you're interested. And dress nice the next time you see him. Wear a little make up, too, while you're at it"). Ophelia decides it wouldn't be right to use her "magick" powers to entice him on, for, as she explains later, “True magick doesn't hand us all our wishes on a silver platter. It's about getting what we need to be better people and helping others." It all sounds very romanticised.
I'm afraid that the series has just about worn itself out. It was an amusing idea to start with but has grown increasingly repetitive. The best bits, such as a description of Ophelia's mother spoiling young Tink on a shopping expedition, are those in which "magick" plays no part.
|The cover is certainly menacing, and the plot of the first book is quite exciting too. The black cat appears on all the covers - yet plays a very insignificant part in the stories. Did the artist ever read any of the books?|