Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Métis MC, sapphic MC, F/F, secondary trans character, bi/pansexual antagonist
Published on: 7th February 2023
“Crackling with magic, mystery, adventure, and intrigue, VenCo is a captivating tribute to the bonds of families we are born into and the ones that we create, and a delightful testament to the power of all womankind.”— Nikki Erlick, New York Times bestselling author of The Measure
For fans of The Once and Future Witches and Practical Magic, comes an incredibly imaginative, highly anticipated new novel featuring witches, magic, and a road trip across America—from Cherie Dimaline, the critically acclaimed author of Empire of Wild.
Lucky St. James, a Métis millennial living with her cantankerous but loving grandmother Stella, is barely hanging on when she discovers she will be evicted from their tiny Toronto apartment. Then, one night, something strange and irresistible calls out to Lucky. Burrowing through a wall, she finds a silver spoon etched with a crooked-nosed witch and the word SALEM, humming with otherworldly energy.
Hundreds of miles away in Salem, Myrna Good has been looking for Lucky. Myrna works for VenCo, a front company fueled by vast resources of dark money.
Lucky is familiar with the magic of her indigenous ancestors, but she has no idea that the spoon links her to VenCo’s network of witches throughout North America. Generations of witches have been waiting for centuries for the seven spoons to come together, igniting a new era, and restoring women to their rightful power.
But as reckoning approaches, a very powerful adversary is stalking their every move. He’s Jay Christos, a roguish and deadly witch-hunter as old as witchcraft itself.
To find the last spoon, Lucky and Stella embark on a rollicking and dangerous road trip to the darkly magical city of New Orleans, where the final showdown will determine whether VenCo will usher in a new beginning…or remain underground forever.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~seven prophesised (sorta) spoons
~granddaughter/grandma relationships FTW
~bondage gear saves the day
~useless oracles are useless
This had all the set-up to be an absolutely incredible book, and for the first little while, that’s exactly what VenCo looked like. Unfortunately, by the halfway mark it was pretty clear VenCo wasn’t going to live up to its potential, and while the book’s final pages were gorgeous, the actual ending of the story was seriously disappointing.
The prologue introduces us to the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, three women who together make up the Oracle that runs a mysterious corporation called Venco. I absolutely adored this prologue, these three very different, powerful magical women introduced to us with some really lovely prose and the delicious promise of Serious Plot about to unfold.
But those three end up being incredibly minor characters, who, despite being at the top (or perhaps heart) of the American witch community, mostly just wring their hands and ‘can’t intervene’ for reasons that are never properly explained, despite them being the only ones with the full picture of what’s going down. I despise this nonsense trope of supposedly-powerful governing bodies having to be hands-off the plot Because Reasons, so as I gradually realised that was exactly what we had here, I became more and more annoyed with it.
“We keep the network engaged, place our women in the right positions, tend to the coffers, but we do not step in. We are not coven witches and don’t have that power.”
The spotlight of this book is on Lucky, a young Métis woman living with her elderly grandmother, who in turn is beginning to suffer from bouts of memory loss and confusion. Lucky is instantly hugely sympathetic, a Millennial with a fairly unconventional childhood who’s just trying to do her best by herself and her grandmother; a little bit snarky, possessed of a huge heart, a writer who doesn’t know what to write (oh, babs, we’ve all been there <3), who tries to dream big but feels crushed down by the world and the system. Let no one say Dimaline has not crafted the perfect MC for this story; I defy anyone who picks this book up not to adore Lucky immensely!
“I am the daughter of Arnya St. James, defender of women, drinker of gin, fighter of assholes, a fierce half-breed from a long line of fierce half-breeds who took no shit and gave no fucks. I am a witch and I am here.”
But although Lucky shines, and Dimaline’s prose and imagery is enchanting, the story itself starts to fall apart quickly. After finding the sixth sort-of-prophesised spoon, it’s Lucky’s job to first meet her now-coven – the owners/guardians of spoons one-through-five – and then track down the seventh spoon and the witch it belongs to. When all seven spoons are united, it’s supposed to be the start of a major change to or remaking of the world; there’s a heavy implication that this will involve hexing the fuck out of the patriarchy. And I was so on board for this!
That’s not what we got, though. Because these witches are…really kind of useless? For a book that talked about the power of women, people of colour, and queer people, it really didn’t walk the walk. There’s a little bit of dream-walking, but the majority of the coven spends the majority of the book staring into a bowl of water trying – and failing – to get a vision of something useful. Apart from a brief break to get hammered – which is somehow the only way to acquire the info Lucky needs to get started on her quest – holders of spoons one-through-five spend the ENTIRE BOOK huddled together in a single house out of fear of one (1) bad guy, who they are apparently completely unable to defend themselves against – and forget going on the offensive, because that’s just not going to happen.
These are supposedly the world-defining witches of the age??? The ones who will shape history and usher in a glorious new utopian era??? How???
And to be honest, the whole girl-power! BIPOC-power! Queer-power! messaging reads as incredibly muddled and messy. Not in a ‘real people are messy’ way, but like Dimaline couldn’t quite figure out what that kind of power means in practical terms, what claiming or reclaiming it and sharing it looks like. It ended up feeling very hand-waved, and to be honest a whole lot of the narrative seemed to contradict and actively undermine it.
(Like the fact that this entire underground society of witches and their support staff can’t handle one single man…)
As a nonbinary person, I’m always a little wary when someone starts preaching girl-power, because too much of the time it gets conflated with XX chromosomes and biology. So I was relieved when Dimaline included a trans woman amongst the spoon holders – I thought we’d dodged that bullet! But again, it’s messy, and kind of undermined by the repeated emphasis on biological motherhood.
“Ironic, that, since the only way to truly be immortal is to have descendants.
I started writing up a whole separate thesis tearing apart VenCo’s philosophy re women vs men, but you know what? I’m just too Tired. It rubbed me the wrong way and seemed uncomfortably simplistic; let’s leave it at that. (Although I do want to be clear that this isn’t a man-hating book, and we meet several perfectly lovely guys throughout the narrative. But the witches’ actual philosophy seems to be ‘girls only, men are the problem’, and while I’m very happy this book says trans women are real women, there’s a lot of us who aren’t women, and a lot of men who aren’t cishet white men, and in the real world this stuff is really complicated, okay? And VenCo is acting like it isn’t. Which I do not love.)
I do want to take a sec to talk about the spoons themselves, though. I thought the idea of seven prophesised spoons was just the right mix of whimsical and magical – it was a big part of why I picked up VenCo in the first place! But I was really unhappy with the backstory of the spoons, and the obsession with Salem, Massachusetts. We discover that the spoons were created by a misogynistic Puritan man in Salem, part of a series of decorative spoons that were intended to ‘keep women in their place’, to remind them not to go near magic. And they did this by…being engraved with witches riding brooms? Sorry, I don’t get how that’s supposed to work? At all??? You buy one of these as a souvenir of your trip to Salem, presumably hang it in your kitchen after, and…your wife doesn’t get uppity? What? It’s a spoon, dude. It’s really not an inherently intimidating object, and it definitely doesn’t scream ONLY MEN CAN HAVE POWER. It’s not like an ancient Roman tintinnabulum or something!
(Link NSFW. Penis windchimes. Tintinnabulums were penis windchimes. Romans were weird.)
I’m not sure if this is an objectively a poor writing choice or just an instance of my personal taste not matching up with the author’s; I wanted the spoons to be…well, Not This. Pretty? Witchy? Silly? I thought it would be a slightly tongue-in-cheek thing, that the characters would acknowledge that this is an extremely odd way of finding chosen ones but what’re you gonna do??? And we didn’t get that. Just a lot of emphasis on and reminders of, over and over, the ugly-hag imagery etched into the spoons, without any real explanation of how that imagery was meaningful.
(Plus there’s the whole thing re the spoons coming from Salem. Where the present-day coven also resides, and like. Can we not? Can we drop the obsession with Salem? I’m so sick and tired of people dropping the witches in their stories in Salem. It’s just boring and lazy at this point.)
If I’m being generous, I can guardedly admit that it might be intended as a reclaiming of the witch-riding-a-broom imagery, a subversion of an attempt to strip women of power (but…with spoons??? HOW DO SPOONS INTIMIDATE ANYONE?), taking these objects that were supposed to keep women down (…somehow) and turn them into objects of power instead. But a) they’re not objects of power, we really just have to trust the text that these spoons are special, because we definitely never see it for ourselves, and b) there were so many other ways you could have played with this! Why not use or invent some analogue of Welsh love spoons, which have their own language of symbols – then you could have done all sorts of things with the symbols in each spoon? Why not have a mismatched set of spoons, where each one once belonged to a woman executed for witchcraft? That way they become a bridge between the past and the present, connecting the witches of today to the witches of yesteryear; the metaphor of passing the torch, except the torch is a spoon? With that you could have leaned into how the spoon is traditionally a very feminine thing, especially if we’re talking about cooking and mixing spoons women would have used in the kitchen, you know? THAT would have felt like a reclaiming, a subversion of these traditionally womanly objects. Any of that would have been more interesting and fun than what Dimaline actually did, and I came up with those ideas in less than ten minutes.
Instead, Salem and very weird misogyny. Lame.
I did appreciate that Dimaline included several different real-life magical traditions in the book, and nods to more, but it’s bizarre to me how little magic we actually see, and there’s no discussions or explanations of how it works or what it’s capable of. Later, we’re told that being a witch is actually something you either are or you aren’t – you can’t learn it, and the children of witches who do not themselves inherit whatever it is that makes you a witch become witch-adjacent support staff instead, and hi, I absolutely hate this worldbuilding.
“Do you know what happens when a witch has children who don’t inherit her power?”
“They become Watchers, like me,” the Mother continued, pointing to herself. Then she indicated the Crone. “Or Bookers.” Then, finally, the Maiden. “Or Tenders,
It’s also extremely confusing; the idea that being a witch is tied to your genes, or something, is…what??? Magic is genetic??? Doesn’t that completely contradict the idea that magic belongs to the Othered, that to be Othered (aka, femme, not-white, and/or queer) is to be inherently magical? Which seems to be what parts of the book are trying to say?
And, uh. For a supposedly massively powerful, magical organisation, Venco the corporation might as well not exist for all the relevance it has to the story here. There is a kind of underground community that helps support witches, but we don’t see Venco employees or operatives pulling strings and making things happen for our characters, not even in purely mundane ways like covering the price of gas and plane tickets for Lucky. Why on earth is the book named for this company???
Maybe it’s not – since ‘venco’ is an amalgam of ‘coven’, maybe the title is supposed to refer to The Coven – aka, Lucky’s coven – coming together. Except that, as previously stated, the coven is pretty useless and unimpressive, so???
The Oracle do try to push or direct magical power at the coven at one point, but it’s all very useless and handwavey, and look, I do not need (or want) a magic system that is all laid out like a Maths equation, I love magic that is mysterious and wondrous and, well, magical. But it’s not, here. There’s no sense of wonder connected to the magic of this story; there are no moments that sent happy chills down my spine or gave me electric goosebumps. The magic is…vague, and diffuse, and barely present. Not in a dreamlike way, but in an I can’t commit to what the magic in my story can do so I’m going to use it as little as possible way. It was so frustrating, especially in a book that claimed it was all about women and minorities discovering, reclaiming and wielding magical power!
Because it isn’t. It really isn’t. If it was, we would see the other witches take a more active role. We would see the villain hindered by their spells and cleverness. We would see magic smoothing the way for Lucky, getting her out of difficult situations, allowing her to accomplish what couldn’t be accomplished otherwise. And there’s none of that.
Lucky herself? Wonderful. Stella, her grandmother? Epic. Their relationship? *chef’s kiss*
“Kids look good on you,” Stella baited Lucky as she followed along.
“And sanity looks good on you,” Lucky teased back, “but some things are just borrowed.”
I even loved the full cast of secondary characters, the holders of the other spoons, but it’s like Dimaline had no idea what to do with them, because, again, they just spend the whole book shoved into a house, cowering from the monster, doing almost nothing. None of them get to be anything but extremely passive.
(Why not have each of the witches come from/join/learn a different magical tradition, so they’re all working different kinds of witchcraft/magic? Why not have them using chaos magic, creating their own spells and sigils and rituals, reinventing magic the way they’re supposed to be reinventing the world? THERE WAS SO MUCH YOU COULD HAVE DONE HERE!)
And while I don’t want to go into spoilers, the showdown between Lucky and the bad guy is a trainwreck – don’t get me started on the bondage gear – and the reveal of the final spoon-holder? It was so obvious and cliche that I almost cried. Heartbreakingly disappointing, straight into cliche.
The prose itself is gorgeous, and I will definitely be looking at Dimaline’s other books, both those she’s previously published and any she publishes in the future, simply because of how beautiful her writing is. But if what you want is a modern, intersectional witchy+femme manifesto-story, then I point you instead towards The Women Could Fly, which is exquisitely excellent.
Because VenCo is not, and honestly, I’d recommend skipping it.
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