The Burning of Arbor: A Review
This review contains spoilers
Right. I hated this book. Hated it so much. I almost threw the book down multiple times while reading and literally groaned my way through the last third. This book reads like the grown-up version of My Immortal (AN: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Immortal_(fan_fiction)). The sentences are short. The transitions are abrupt. The plot makes very little sense. There’s so much painful pontificating. I will allow that the spells and witchcraft in general are really well done. The author uses the term “females” when she means “women” twice. Twice! There’s a part Fae character who gets called fairy later. I’m pretty sure the author meant it literally but she lowercased it. Lowercase fairy equals slur out of the straight male’s mouth, so it needed to be capitalized.
Okay, let’s sum up the plot. This shouldn’t take too long: Evangeline has lived in Arbor her whole life. The resident reverend and mayor both hate her because she’s a witch. They harass her in the street. They randomly decide to up their campaign of hate to a literal witch hunt. The reverend’s son tries to rape her multiple times. She is saved by Alexander. Surprise! He's her soulmate. And also it’s brought up that they reincarnate and have been lovers in fourteen lifetimes but never actually stay together. She does a bunch of witchcraft which seems to be based on Wicca, but I don’t know enough to say. The literal witch hunt ends with her on a pyre and deaths that this book did not earn occur, and then the book just ends.
This book is not really plot-centered, in that the narrative is not propelled by plot but rather by characters and their interactions. This would work better if the author wrote better dialogue or characters I cared about. I do not say this lightly, but Evangeline is a Mary Sue in the good old fashion way. She is the all powerful, prophesied new high priestess, an elemental witch who is very petite, but also curvy, and all the men in the book see her as a cool sister or want to have sex with her, but also she needs to be saved by Alexander every other page. She’s clearly too perfect, so the author gave her a flaw. She’s clumsy, but that goes away after the 70% mark. Also, related, I do not care about what designers your super hot, super cool brother figures buy you. Alexander is the heavy-handed savior complex man who sweeps in and falls in love with Evangeline after spending a total of three hours with her. He is such a rote white, rich, romantic lead that I have no other thoughts about him. The only characters I remotely liked were Evangeline’s goddess-mother, Maggie, and her high priestess Adelaide, and even they played to type. There are also animal familiars but I found them utterly pointless to include.
So much as every single good character is a witch, every single evil character is not. Seriously, and this is a slight spoiler, if a character happens to not be a witch, they’re evil. And not even just religious zealotry kind of evil, because that wasn’t enough. No, these evil characters embezzle money, kill and physically assault, try to rape and threaten rape, and oh yeah, have cocaine fueled orgies with underaged girls in the church basement. Major spoiler! They literally burn the 80-year-old witch at the stake. This is one of the deaths this book never earns. They also try to burn Evangeline at the same time but to no one’s shock the flames can’t hurt her because she’s Evangeline.
Whenever good and evil interact the reader is treated to pontificating the level of which I haven’t read outside of books written in about the 1700s. The reader is treated to multiple speeches like:
‘The charge of witchcraft is an age-old device used to silence and ostracize powerful women. One might assume that the persecution of suspected witches ended in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1600s, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The United Nations has estimated that the murders of those individuals – men, women, and even children – accused of witchcraft around the globe each year as numbering in the thousands, while assaults and exiles could reach into the millions annually. These well-documented cases of heinous brutality, beheadings, and burnings are growing in number and severity the world over. Although the vast majority of these incidents occur outside of the United States, the hatred, ignorance, and religious zealotry that spark them know no boundaries of national borders. We don’t live in the 1600s. We don’t live in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia where the governments sanction the arrest and lashing and beheading of accused witches. We don’t live in Kenya or the Central African Republic where villagers have been known to burn their own family members alive under the guise of spiritual warfare. And unlike most of the poor victims who are persecuted across the globe, I am a witch.’ I paused, letting the gravity of my statement sink in. ‘We live in the United States, a nation that prizes freedom and the free exercise of religion. This means I have the right to believe and practice whatever stirs my soul, without fear of intimidation or reprisal.’
and it just keeps going. This speech is given in a press conference Evangeline calls. I have no idea why the press shows up to the private individual's press conference, but they do. I suppose because she’s been the subject of the mayor’s hate campaign, but it was just weird.
And for every hero speech like the above, we get the villain speech:
‘You know, just last night, Gladys asked if I worried that today’s burning might dash my election hopes. And given our state’s proclivity for liberal snowflakes, her question is a valid one. But you all must realize that we are no longer a silent majority! Every time a baker refuses to sell a rainbow wedding cake, every time a cemetery refuses to put a pentagram on a tombstone, every teacher who prays with her students in school, these small but righteous acts embolden and amplify the voices of the like-minded around us. Every act of holy defiance demonstrates to the uncertain of the flock that we are in this together, and we mean business! We are blessed to have such magnanimous leadership in Washington, and I have no doubt they would support our efforts here today!’
and it is all just so tedious. And on top of having to read all this, the reader is also left with the question: Why are these characters constantly committing libel and defamation? And why on earth won’t Evangeline take legal action for anything? She says she doesn’t want to report Stuart’s assaults because she doesn’t want to have to relive it and just wants it to go away. That’s fairly believable, but why not the harassment and libel and defamation the other characters keep subjecting her to. It’s not until their house is vandalized that the law gets involved and then that goes nowhere. As far as I can tell, the whole book takes place over two weeks, which is a very quick timeline to go from harassment to witch burning.
One of the more irksome issues I have with The Burning of Arbor is the repeat assaults Evangeline is subjected to. Within the first few chapters the reader learns that in the past Stuart Cudlow, son of the Reverend Cudlow, has already attempted to rape Evangeline, assaulting her in the process. Then in those same chapters he attempts it again. In fact, almost every single time Evangeline happens to be alone outside in the novel, Stuart and her ex-boyfriend Jay, the mayor’s son, try to or threaten rape. The annoying part of it is that Evangeline has proven herself quite powerful and keeps saying she doesn’t need the other characters to save her from them, but then she is constantly needing to be saved from them. And when she is saved, typically by Alexander, she gets angry at him for daring to intervene. Her emotional response to the assault is to take a bath and sage smudge herself and then she’s fine, nothing else is needed.
As far as representation goes, it’s not great. I went in thinking this was a polyamorous relationship because the blurb mentions her falling in love with two people and relying on them to save the day. In the text I didn’t even realize Evangeline is bisexual until about 70% of the way into it. I’m not saying that bisexual people need to go out of their way to “prove” their bisexuality, but the author has Evangeline talk about the relative attractiveness or sexiness of all the male characters, including her brother figures, and doesn’t have her mention the attractiveness of a single female character. Her lady lover doesn’t even show up into her life until about 80% of the way through the book. She’s mentioned once before in passing. And even then, the polyamory promised doesn’t occur. Her two loves (she is never technically the lover of Celeste) sleep on either side of her once. The book ends with Alexander and Celeste still hating each other but agreeing to get along for Evangeline’s sake.
I haven’t even touched on the jealousy and cursed storyline involving Celeste and Alexander. It was such a dumb plot point. I do not understand why the author included it, but that could be said about just about any part of the plot not directly related to the literal witch hunt. There was so much more to pick apart in this book. I’ll leave it at that. I rarely say this about a book, but I wish I hadn’t read this. When it wasn’t angering it was tedious.