Witches, Witches, and More Witches, Oh… No. Just No. – A Review of Hexed by Kevin Hearne

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Every now and then, I like to do some light, fluffy reading. I know it’s vitally important to read material that’s been critically-acclaimed, or heavily awarded, or considered “up and coming” in order to keep up-to-date on what’s going on in the genres I like to read. This is an important and necessary thing, especially if I’m to keep up this book blog. Every now and then, though, I need to decompress. Sometimes I feel like my head’s all bloated from the ideas I’ve got running around in there, and the best way to counteract that feeling is to read something that’s not going to mentally strain me much.

The last few books I’ve read so far were most assuredly fun, but weren’t exactly easy picnics, idea-wise. Leviathan Wakes might not have been heavy sci-fi, precisely, but it had enough interesting world-building in it to make me think quite a bit, not to mention it was also partially a mystery, and any mystery requires thinking in order to be fun. Akata Witch might have been Y.A., but it was exotic enough and was rich enough in thematic concerns to make it a bit of a brain-burner. The Library Book, by it’s very nature as a non-fiction book with politically-inclined essays, did require a bit of thinking on its own. Nocturnal was clearly a mystery, and horror, on top of that, which means it does have some mental straining involved. Finally, The Long Earth wasn’t precisely heavy sci-fi either, but the nature of the storytelling did require quite a bit of thinking as well, if only to keep characters straight.

At that point, I knew I’d reached my limit in terms of “serious” reading. It was time for some decompression with a light, easy read I could finish in one or two days. And since I’d already started on Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, and I was due for a fantasy/urban fantasy read, I thought it’d be a good idea to pick up the next book in the series, titled Hexed.

The Iron Druid Chronicles is about a Druid named Atticus O’Sullivan, who is older than Christianity itself but doesn’t look a year of it: in fact, he looks like he’s in his early twenties, no different from the college students that make up most of the clientele of his bookshop-slash-apothecary, and who make up a lot of the population of Tempe, the town Atticus lives in. Having survived the events of the last novel, Hounded (my review for which can be found here), Atticus is entirely happy to keep living his life as peacefully as possible. He has an apprentice to train, and he has a peace treaty to sign with the local witch coven, but with his greatest enemy gone, he would like nothing more than to settle down to educating his apprentice and setting about healing the damage done to the earth by his battle with one of the Tuatha dé Danaan.

Unfortunately, it appears things are not going to be as quiet as he wants them to be. For one, now that he’s proven he can kill a god, Atticus is getting requests from a whole bunch of other gods, wanting him to take out some other god that’s gotten on their nerves (current top-runner: Thor). Aside from that, though, trouble is brewing again: a group of Bacchantes is blowing in from Las Vegas, and with them comes mischief and madness of a sort that Atticus could live without. And then there’s the fact that a mysterious coven of witches seems to have it out for him and for the coven he himself is trying to hammer out a peace treaty with. Trouble of the witchy kind has come into Tempe, and Atticus just wants it all gone – if he can survive long enough to make it get gone.

The concept of witchcraft in the Iron Druid world is interesting. It was covered briefly in Hounded, but since the witches were technically peripheral characters in that novel, it wasn’t given that much attention. In Hexed, though, they’re pretty much front-and-center, and the reader gets some understanding of how they work magic. Atticus’ method of working magic is quite clear: as a Druid he is capable of drawing power from the earth itself. This means he’s practically invincible as long as he’s standing on the earth, because he can constantly draw upon it as long as he has bare skin touching it. This is, of course, problematic in an urban setting, and there are a great many moments when Atticus, drained of power and needing some quick healing, will lie down naked on the grass of his yard in order to recharge his power and fuel the healing magic that allows him to survive all sorts of grievous injuries.

Witches, though, are different. They’re often depicted as spell-slingers who are capable of taking bits of another person – hair, nails, skin, blood – and using that as a means of controlling or even killing someone else. It also appears they can brew potions, though this wasn’t really shown in either Hounded or Hexed. They can work in covens, though this appears to be a Western thing: one of the witches with whom Atticus has a somewhat-uneasy working relationship, Laksha Kulasekaran, works alone. At any rate, the Sisters of the Three Auroras, a group of Polish witches with whom Atticus is trying to negotiate a peace treaty, appear to be the basic model for witch covens: a group of women who honor the same deity (the Zoryas, in their case, a pair of goddesses from Slavic myth), and who often work together to cast magic. Many are capable of casting magic on their own, of course, but working together has its advantages in that they can pool their power together and increase it exponentially.

Now, while most witch covens draw their power from a deity, it is possible to draw that power from a darker source: demons, as is the case of the other witch coven that sweeps through town, the die Törchter des dritten Hauses, or the Daughters of the Third House. A coven of witches from Germany, they were involved in Nazi activity during the Second World War, and they have it out for the Sisters of the Three Auroras, mostly because the latter attempted to disrupt the former’s activities. Even Atticus has a grudge against them, because he ran into them while trying to ferry Jewish families safely out of Nazi-occupied territory, which means the German witches have it out for Atticus, too. Just what the German witches are up to will be very reminiscent of some of the worst accusations made by Kramer and Sprenger in the Malleus Maleficarum.

This is where, I felt, things got a little problematic for me. I know this was just supposed to be a fun read, but I found myself somewhat uncomfortable with the portrayal of witches throughout this novel. I can understand the portrayal of The Daughters of the Third House as the sort of witch Kramer and Sprenger hoped to burn at the stake; the kind of magic they work is extremely objectionable, not to mention their involvement with the Nazis (whom I think Kramer and Sprenger would have supported).When Atticus wipes out their entire coven, the reader feels good about it. On the other hand, though, Atticus doesn’t give a flattering picture of the Sisters of the Three Auroras initially, being entirely mistrustful of them, and of witches in general, right from the get-go. There hasn’t been any explanation yet, as to why he has such mistrust for them, but there it is. I hope an explanation comes up soon, though, because if this keeps up I might be more than a little offended.

Another thing that didn’t quite sit well with me was the way Atticus tended to act around women. While I personally have no illusions about how a man reacts to a woman (especially one he finds particularly attractive), I do think it’s possible for a man not to ogle every single woman that crosses his path, just to prove that he’s a heterosexual example of the male species. I understood quite clearly from the first book that Atticus was not homosexual; there was hardly any need to emphasize that even further with his ogling of Granuaile and his struggle not to think lecherous thoughts about her.

As for the rest of it, though, it’s still as fun as the last book. Atticus’s humor is still pretty good (except when he’s thinking with his smaller head, so to speak), and Oberon is still as fun a voice as ever to listen to. There wasn’t nearly enough of the Tempe Pack involved in this, except for Leif, who has a very important request of Atticus that will likely form the crux of the next novel, Hammered. I also liked how some of the people who are closest to Atticus are not necessarily immune to death because they’re close to him(as proven by the death of Perry, one of his shopkeepers). Finally, there was a wonderful appearance put in by a very important member of the Christian pantheon, and a most interesting set of conversations as to their role and presence in this version of the world, where practically all pantheons still exist side-by-side.

Overall, Hexed is as amusing a read as the first book was, albeit I say so with certain reservations. It’s entirely possible that I’m being a mite oversensitive here, but when Atticus was dealing with a male antagonist I didn’t see any of these problems, but when he deals with a female antagonist, well…the issues appear to crop up pretty quickly, though fortunately not as thickly as they could have. Recurring characters are still as fun as they were in the last book, though Atticus, as I said earlier, appears to be thinking with the wrong head for a significant amount of time in this novel – more time than I’m comfortable with. Hopefully, though, this ceases to be a problem in the upcoming books, because I don’t want to dislike Atticus now that I’ve actually invested in him and his story.

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