Review: Familiar Things by Lia Habel

Familiar Things
Lia Habel

Kitten Perfume Publishing
I received an e-copy of this book from the author.
Released October 28, 2014
297 pages
YA / Fanatasy / Magic

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Sixteen-year-old witch Everrose Morgantwill isn’t sure which monster is causing her more trouble—the ten-foot-tall wildcat she’s attracted as her familiar, or her emotionally unstable boyfriend.
Half her spells go nowhere, and people always have trouble remembering her name, but even so—Everrose’s life is idyllic. Born and raised in All Hollows County, a secretive world created by powerful witches and warlocks for the protection of the magically inclined, she’s never had to fear persecution. In All Hollows, magic is used openly. A great spell known as the Nestle Ward isolates and protects it, though there is one odd little side effect.
In our world, it’s 2015. In All Hollows, it’s 1958.
Between sewing the perfect high school wardrobe, experimenting with red lipstick and cake mascara, and dreaming about prom, Everrose has a lot on her mind. When her steady boyfriend returns from a trip to “the Layside” a changed warlock, however—she notices. Handsome Vincent Olwen was affectionate and self-effacing when he left, but he’s come back acting sullen and withdrawn. Everrose is lost for an explanation—and lost for what to do.
Troubled by the changes she sees in Vincent, Everrose tries to distract herself by searching for her first familiar—a rite of passage for sixteen-year-olds in All Hollows. But when she does make the Connexion, it’s with the last animal she would’ve ever expected—a massive, terrifying wildeor called a trothenbeast. Only powerful witches and warlocks attract wildeors as familiars. Yet, when it comes to magic, Everrose is completely inept. It makes no sense. Weirder still, the beast fails to alert Everrose to the presence of magic, and refuses to shadow her. In short, he doesn’t act like a protecting, guiding familiar animal at all.
Faced with all of this, Everrose is just about ready to throw in the towel. Before she can, though, she learns that the trothenbeast has been cursed by an evil witch named Ebonella Rosu—and that Ebonella wants him back.
Everrose must contend with a witch who wants her dead, a familiar who needs her protection, and a boyfriend who’s changing before her eyes. When she finally reaches out for help, she finds it from an unlikely source—her boyfriend’s moody, somewhat mysterious father, the mayor of her little town. What secrets does Roderick Olwen harbor? And what do they have to do with Everrose herself?

If you’ve listened to our most recent episode of the Working for the Mandroid podcast, you’ll know how difficult this review has been for me to write. If you’ve ever loved an author based on their debut series so much that you feared reading any future series by them, you might understand how difficult this review has been for me to write. If you’ve ever received a copy of a book directly from an author with their well wishes and hopes that you’ll love it, you’ll really understand how difficult this review has been for me to write.

I loooooved Lia Habel’s Dearly, Departed series or at least the two books that she’s released. I bought into the world from page 1, fell in love with a zombie boy despite my brain telling me it was a terrible idea, and wanted so desperately to be Nora, the delicate girl that has to learn to be a soldier in a world in conflict. It’s one of those series where the logical side of me sees the flaws and the rest of me tells that logic to shut up, we’re busy enjoying the ride. It’s a series that I nearly always want to be talking about, but can’t seem to find anyone else who has loved it nearly as much as I have.

So I put off reading Familiar Things for a while after receiving a copy directly from Lia. Partly this was from fear, partly from not realizing that I had to email the Kindle file to my Kindle and therefore never being able to find it on my Kindle when I was willing to make that leap to start reading it. I finally decided to change that during our annual trip to Comic Con. Line waiting is very conducive to reading as is airplane time.

I wanted so badly to love it. I dived in reading to join the adventures of a teenage witch stuck in the 1950s. I ignored my trepidation at the twee musical cues that seemed to pop up every few pages and were always way too on the nose. I overcame my nervousness when it looked like the story was headed one way only to completely ignore a potentially interesting plot to go in a different direction. I powered through even when some weird romantic subtext creeped in that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. And when I was done, I was sad because I didn’t like Familiar Things much at all.

This is the first book self-published by Lia Habel, and it left me with the same feeling as most self-published works. It really needs some help from a professional editor to tighten up plot, to point out potential inconsistencies in world building that could be explained away with a sentence or two in the right place, and to help with pacing. The writing is still solid and it’s obvious that the author loves this setting of a 1950s pocket universe, but all those elements that made it feel authentic to the time period seemed to take the attention away from the more important plotting elements.

Familiar Things is about Everrose, who lives in a pocket universe somewhere in the forests of Pennsylvania. This pocket universe was formed during the witch burnings in the US and has been going on alongside the greater world for 200+ years. Unfortunately time goes a bit slower in All Hollows, so while the rest of the world is in the tech boom of 2015, they’re still using 1950s technology. Every summer, witches and warlocks about to graduate from school go on a sabbatical to experience the real world for a month and then decide whether to return to the magical haven of All Hollows or stay in the modern world. The book opens with Everrose’s boyfriend returning from his jaunt to the modern world acting weird and wanting to import modern technology to All Hollows.

There is a lot of potential in this plot idea, but it’s only used as a way to wedge Everrose and the otherwise flat boyfriend apart so she can have a story about self-discovery and cause some secondary characters to have conflict that has little effect on the main story. A story of self-discovery is fine, but I don’t know why so much of the beginning of the book is focused around the boyfriend’s story was when it didn’t have much to do with anything in the end.

Everrose’s story is really about her not being able to find a familiar as she’s getting closer to the birthday when she’s supposed to find her first familiar. She’s also very bad at magic except on a rare occasion where she seems very powerful. Both these things cause her much internal strife and adolescent angst. The issue I had with the self-discovery arc is that somewhere around a third of the way through the book, there’s a passing reference to how Everrose’s mother doesn’t have a familiar and no explanation for why that’s not weird. I just kept thinking Everrose might have inherited whatever non-familiar witchiness that her mother had. People – including her father – also have a tendency to forget about her when she isn’t around, which provides her with some issues as well.

All these things are explained in a reasonable way for the rules of this world, but rather than have hints or explanations weaved throughout the story, all the answers to these and every other issue, mystery or concern that build up through the entire book are provided during an epic mansplaining exposition dump at the very end. The only thing this male character doesn’t explain is the one thing where someone actually told him, “Make sure to tell her about that one character we keep mentioning, but have never seen and won’t explain.”

And then on top of this, there are a couple of scenes involving a massive tiger-like beast who has been imbued with the intellect of a man or possibly a teenage boy and Everrose, where there is romantic tension and possible innocuous weird flirting. That is when I nearly gave up on this book. Zombie and teenage girl, I’m fine with, but apparently I cross the line at man-trapped-in-tiger-beast and teenage girl. It just hit all my squick buttons.

I see potential in Familiar Things, potential that with the help of possibly beta readers and/or an editor could become a much better book about a teenage witch in a pre-tech boom period discovering herself and how she fits into the greater world around her. I just think that book is several very different drafts away from where it is now.

And with all that said, there are people loving this book on Goodreads, so what do I know? Other than I hate myself for writing this review, I mean.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review. These are all my own thoughts, and I hope Lia understands that this one just wasn’t for me. I still adore her, Nora and Bram though.