Witch 13 (by Patrick Delaney)

Stirling is sheriff of a small town, but if she has her way it won’t be for very much longer. It should be her last night, and she was anticipating a quiet one. But things do not turn out the way she had planned. She did not expect to walk into the wife of the man she’d been seeing. She didn’t expect the woman to strike her in the middle of the local diner. She didn’t blame her, but she could have done without the encounter. Worst of all, worst of everything, was that she didn’t expect to go out on a call and have the same woman throw herself to her death a few hours later.

Stirling encounters a woman at the scene of the death. She is dressed in all black and wears what appears, jaw-droppingly, to be the pointy hat of a witch from a fairy-tale. But as people start to die across the town Stirling has sworn to protect, she realises that this is no woman in a cheap Halloween costume, and wherever she came from it was certainly no fairy-tale.

Patrick Delaney’s Witch 13 is thick with atmosphere right from the opening page. The air around the town of Drybell nigh on crackles with the energy of the storm that surrounds it. The occupants become isolated, and the quiet town becomes little more than a ghost town. A few of its occupants are attending a surprise leaving party for Sterling, and the vast majority of the book is set at this location, which happens to be the small local police station.

The beginning of the book uses many of the same story points as the comic book 30 Days of Night, or the Stephen King TV miniseries Storm of the Century, not to mention a plethora of horror movies from the early 80’s. We have a town isolated by poor weather, a mysterious stranger that languishes in a local jail cell, and the local police officer who finds themselves tied up in it all. So while it might not be an original start, it is a well drawn one. The dimly lit streets are clear in the reader’s mind, as are the pockets of people that populate the town. The author effectively minimises the town into just a dozen people who occupy one location, and this never seems forced. So while my comparison to other stories might seem negative, I think it’s anything but. Patrick Delaney manages to tell an oft told tale with enough originality to keep it fresh for the reader.

The characters are engaging, though often not very likeable, and the world around them is nicely realised. The layout of the town, though not explicitly explained, feels realistic, and this lends the whole story a kind of geographic solidity.

About midway through the book becomes a little slow, my engagement waning, but this does not last long, and some of Stirling’s personal entanglements seemed somewhat beside the point. I’d extend this to the LGBT tag the book has, the moment this refers to is brief and completely unnecessary to the plot. Cynically I can’t help but  think this scene was only included to allow the author to slap an LGBT-friendly tag on the work.

For me the worst part of the book was the inclusion of the mysterious stranger who spends most of the book in the jail cell, only to be revealed at the book’s conclusion. It appears he ends up knowing everything our nero needs to know, as well as a great deal the audience has been wondering about. There seems to be no real reason for him having this knowledge, and once he deposits the knowledge on our hero he promptly disappears, making it pretty clear this was the only reason he was there. While I can understand that the author needed some explanation for the incidents in the book, the scenes with this character felt just like information dumps, and though there are efforts to humanise him and give him character it never felt particularly effective to me.

Though it did not completely ruin it, ultimately this weakened the book’s conclusion for me. It would have been preferable for Stirling to discover this information through her own investigative skills, she is a sheriff after all, rather than have a man turn up to lead her through her understanding of the situation.

Patrick Delaney’s Witch 13 is a fun read, which I did enjoy, but it’s not the great read it could have been. The author tells an engaging tale, and there are many good things about the book that I hope you’ll discover when you read it yourself, but when the last page is turned it seems that Delaney is ham-strung by his own ideas. A story about a witch straight out of a fairy tale terrorising a modern American town sounds like a great idea, and it is one, but it seems that drawing such a tale to a satisfying and believable conclusion was just a little beyond the author’s reach, at least it was for this reader.

When all is said and done, I think you should definitely consider reading Witch 13 for yourself if the idea intrigues you. In spite of my reservations I did find it an engaging read with heaps of atmosphere and a more than memorable villain.

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