Reviewing The Witches of Echo Park and Death’s Daughter

The last two years have not exactly been the best for me. I quit my job instead of riding it out until I could qualify for a 10-week pension and unemployment to move to San Diego, where I floundered for 8 months failing to find a job, only to be dumped back in Vegas and all of my possessions packed poorly and sent back a week later and placed in storage (where the overwhelming majority of it still resides). That was just a prelude for a 2015 where my job prospects were nil and I barely managed to scrape together enough cash to keep things like this website going as I mooched off my parents. Despite the regular activity on this blog, my work ethic dwindled, and my health generally cratered. Worse, I distanced myself from a lot of people (for reasons that I find valid) and essentially retreated to one small room for most of the day (when I wasn’t sleeping in that same room). Things have improved substantially in 2016 because I have a job (hooray, money!) and because I spent a lot of last year making new friends online (on Twitter and the StoryWonk forums primarily) and doing a lot of old-fashioned soul-searching (I’m loathe to call it “good” since a good deal of it involved getting over someone that I let slip out of my life years ago and recognizing what a huge mistake that was). In the end, I’d like to think that I’m at least a marginally better person as I start to get fully back on my feet.

One of the big pillars of strength since leaving San Diego has been engaging in StoryWonk’s re-watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I’m a bit ashamed to say that it’s the first full-on re-watch since both shows left the air (even though I had been buying the comics until a year before I quit my job), so re-watching has been more than a little good for my soul. Obviously, my opinions are a bit…..odd coughWillow/Xander shippercough, but it’s been all good. However, when I received the welcome windfall of free gift card money for Christmas, Dusted had just passed “Hush” and the introduction of Amber Benson as Tara.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Amber Benson’s performance is a massive inspiration to me: I took to live-tweeting Buffy (and the occasional Angel) because of her debut, and I was literally a blubbering mess during “Hush” and “New Moon Rising” (the episode where Willow officially starts dating Tara) because of this. Tara, despite being the shyest character in the entire franchise (she can barely speak when we first meet her), quickly establishes herself as the bravest and purest of the Scoobies, and Amber Benson never once failed to play the part with integrity and honesty, and she has been unswervingly kind and decent in every interview or appearance that I’ve ever seen or read. It was this bundle of factors that led me to use some of the gift card money to purchase two of the books she has written: The Witches of Echo Park and Death’s Daughter.

Full disclosure time: I didn’t make this purchase blind, and had been considering it off an on for years. One of my first Buffy-inspired purchases in 2002 was the Tales of the Slayers trade paperback that Benson had contributed to,  and I watched the Ghosts of Albion web series for the BBC that she had co-written years ago (which is currently on my virtual re-watch pile), and in typical fannish fashion, I’ve been aware of her second career as a writer and director. This was simply when I finally decided to jump in and start reading.

When both books arrived in the mail, I eventually (after a not inconsiderable amount of waffling) decided to start reading The Witches of Echo Park. The plot, in as TL;DR a fashion as I can provide: Lyse is traveling to LA to visit her great-aunt Eleanora, who she has just found out is terminally ill. Lyse, who lived with Eleanora after her parents died, is less than eager to return to Echo Park after all these years, but she may be staying for a lot longer: Eleanora plans to induct Lyse into her coven of witches, which completely turns her life upside down.

There’s a lot to like about this book, but the first thing that grabbed me is just how well Benson builds her world. I felt like as if Echo Park was almost tangibly real (it is a real neighborhood in Los Angeles, but that’s entirely beside the point) in a way that felt a bit magical.

And wow, that was an awful pun.

Bad punning aside, there’s a vibrancy to the environment and characters that I found to be quite engaging. This grounded and authentic environment allows for a surprisingly seamless transition from Lyse’s assumed mundane world to the magical world that she actually lives in, and sets a clear tone for the book. The world building is also aided by the book’s structure: instead of your standard numbered and/or titled chapters, each chapter is titled by the name of one of the members of the coven (Eleanora, Lyse, Lizbeth, and so on), and the narrative follows that character. What this means on a practical level is that we learn not only a lot about each member of the coven (and their families, friends, and snuggle whore cats), but we find out that they’ve been keeping secrets from one another…..with Eleanora having the most and the biggest.

If there’s a downside to The Witches of Echo Park, it’s that it becomes pretty clear that the book is the first in a series towards the end. Granted, the second book was about to come out when I purchased this one (and the third is currently being written), so I knew this was the case. Moreover, there is a complete story here, but my first thought was that of slight annoyance at the end because it was just getting really good. (So, basically, my biggest complaint is that the book left me wanting more.

And, now for something completely different: namely, Death’s Daughter. While as much of a work of fantasy as The Witches of Echo ParkDeath’s Daughter has an entirely different tone and structure. Gone is the ensemble cast and instead we have a singular protagonist, Calliope Reaper-Jones, who narrates the book from her perspective. Callie is a snarky, self-absorbed, and occasionally self-depreciating twenty something toiling as an assistant for the VP of Sales at House and Yard. Suffice to say, she is less than thrilled with her “glamorous” existence.

I should hate, Hate, HATE Callie, and if she was a real person, I probably would. But in this context, and with the book being this well written, I don’t. In fact, I quickly began to like Callie and her near-constant stream of top-shelf snark.

A massive part of this is because it appears to be a coping mechanism: Callie has literally used a forgetting spell so that she won’t remember (and therefore avoid her obligations to) her family. On its face (and particularly after Callie unloads the full force of her ‘tude on her father’s assistant, Jarvis), you’d think that it’s because Callie is rebelling against her family or being petulant, but then she retells in full detail two incidents that convinced her that being the daughter of Death and living with the immortality that came with her father’s position isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And later on, the snark covers for some imagery that’s worthy of the worst (or best, depending on your outlook) of Stephen King’s philosophy on horror: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion (used to almost quintessential effect in Robert Wise’s film The Haunting, where, as in The Monkey’s Paw, we are never allowed to see what is behind the door), and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” The contrast between the humor in Death’s Daughter and the more horrific elements is central to the story: Callie has avoided the ugly aspects of Death, but now has to embrace them in order to rescue her sister and father.

The same elements that made The Witches of Echo Park so enjoyable are also present in Death’s Daughter: strong characterizations and great world-building abound. The best being the structure of the supernatural world, with Death being a corporation. This idea, while far from original (Dragon Ball is probably the most famous example), makes sense here. Instead of just giving lip service to how bureaucracies behave (generally to score some cheap jokes), Death, Inc. is actually seen as a functioning corporation, and it even presents a logical answer to the question of what happens to deities who are no longer worshipped? (The answer: they’re reassigned.)

It’s this attention to detail that Benson such a great writer-enough detail to create realistic, immersive worlds without ever bogging down the story. The Witches of Echo Park and Death’s Daughter represent the best type of fantasy: they make the impossible plausible. So, by all means: buy these books. Amber Benson is a hell of a writer, and I’m thrilled now that I’ve finally taken the time to sample her work.