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The Book Beat: Love, family, the supernatural

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This week’s read

Nora Roberts began writing paranormal romance long before it was trendy, and her mastery of the genre is evident in “The Dark Witch,” book one in the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy. 

Far more complex and compelling than most of its kind, the book tells the story of the heirs of Sorca, the Dark Witch of 13th-century County Mayo, Ireland. Desired by the evil sorcerer Cabhan, Sorca gave her life in an effort to destroy his black magic, but she failed.

That duty now falls to three of her present-day descendants. American Iona Sheehan travels to the land of her ancestors, where she meets her distant cousins and the handsome mortal Boyle McGrath. Together, they resume an ancient war that can only end in death.

Roberts has a great talent for making the fantastic perfectly believable. Her magical creatures are very human and face relatable problems. With all of her power, Iona still suffers from low self-esteem created by indifferent parents. Her desperate thirst for love compels her to throw herself into one-sided relationships that leave her even more damaged. Cabhan’s greed and pride drive him to misuse his gifts in the pursuit of vengeance, trapping him in a cycle of impotent rage and futile attacks on his enemies.

Along with realistic characters, Roberts excels at engulfing readers in the sights, sounds and smells of the worlds she creates. For instance, she beautifully captures the essence of a small Irish pub:

“The yeasty smell of beer pouring from the tap, the earthy scent of peat simmering in the hearth. . . People claimed stools at the hub of the bar, or sat at tables already into their meal. Their voices hummed over the clink of glassware.”

The descriptive passages are interspersed with tension among characters and battles of good versus evil. This keeps readers engaged and prevents the pace from slowing:

“She rushed out, threw the shield behind her this time. It wouldn’t get through, wouldn’t harm the horses. Bracing her feet, she prepared to protect, even as the wolf circled back. Even as it rose up on two legs and became a man ... As in the dreams, his voice was like cold hands gliding over the skin. And still, somehow seductive.”

Readers who are familiar with Roberts’ romance novels may be surprised by this work. Emphasis is placed on Iona’s journey of self-discovery and the forging of familial bonds. However, her growing attraction to Boyle, and the ensuing difficulties they both face in committing to one another, is still a major element of the story.

With Halloween fast approaching, stories of ghosts and goblins abound. The Dark Witch stands out as a well-written combination of love, family and the supernatural. Even readers who don’t normally favor the paranormal genre will be charmed by this magical book.