The Sweetest Spell

I bought The Sweetest Spell because the sample was promising (I’m a sucker for down and out but plucky heroines), and ended up tossing it aside in disgust when I got three fourths of the way through. The book started strongly, but had several issues that pushed me out of the story or made me actively dislike the characters:

  • The central premise is that the heroine is able to create chocolate. Which she does by churning cream, but instead of transforming into butter it transforms into chocolate. Presumably milk chocolate. This bugs the heck out of me; chocolate has a long and interesting history, and most of it has nothing to do with milk. Milk chocolate came around in the late 1800’s in Europe, making it a very recent addition to chocolate products. To have an imaginary European-style medieval kingdom where chocolate is produced solely from milk strains credibility past the breaking point for me, and soured the entire book from the first time the heroine picked up a butter churn through until I stopped reading in disgust.
  • Despite being sixteen or older, the characters are without exception entirely juvenile. The level of complexity of thought for everyone, from main characters to secondary characters to villains (including adults), feels like it belongs in middle school. Probably the best example of this is that the main character comes across someone who claims she has studied negotiation, and their advice is “if you have something other people want, make include something you are willing to give up when you make your demands so that they feel in control.” Oookay, well that’s not bad advice, but it’s also a pretty simplistic way to understand negotiation and isn’t going to get you very far in life. Then the main character runs into the main villain, puts forth her demands, and says, “oh, but I’ll give up this one demand (which incidentally is the only one that involves me maintaining my self-respect, cause who needs that?)”. The villain immediately accedes and comments, “my, but you’re good at negotiation.” I would suspect irony, except the villain proves themselves incapable of complex thought through their other actions, leaving me to take them at their word.
  • The story is told from two different first-person perspectives (heroine and love interest), and although the author usually signals who is who within the first few sentences of a chapter, there is no explicit marking. Their tone is practically identical, there are no visual indications at the chapter’s start (at least in the Kindle version; I haven’t seen the physical book), and it can be a bit confusing at first just who it is we’re reading about. Since, as I mentioned, neither character really does much thinking beyond “Oh, I should respond to this latest thing that happened with the first thing that crosses my mind!”, there doesn’t seem to be much reason not to have written the thing in close third person and saved readers the trouble.
  • Aside from the chocolate thing, there were several other places where I had to pause my reading and say, “Really? How does that make sense?” For instance, the heroine is at one point chained to a rock for an extended length of time. But there’s no explanation of how the person who chains her there (an itinerant who calls no place home) is able to attach a chain to a random rock by the seashore. Perhaps he’s packing around a bunch of blacksmithing tools except, OH WAIT, he abandoned his wagon of goods mere pages earlier. Perhaps he’s just really good at thinking ahead? I might be able to ignore this sort of oversight if the book was able to suspend my disbelief initially, but since I was already pretty skeptical thanks to the whole “chocolate comes from cows” premise, these types of details only served to push me further out of the story.

I will admit, however, that things aren’t all bad. The author does a nice job of keeping things moving, and the characters do occasionally suffer from their idiocy. I also liked that the main character had a physical impediment, but that she a) suffered/worked through it as best she could, and b) didn’t get a magical workaround to turn her into a Real Person (at least not in the first 75%; who knows what the ending might have held?).

Regardless, I cannot in good faith advise anyone to read this book, since I couldn’t even finish it.

Plot summary

The plot summary contains spoilers! Show it anyway.

We open with our heroine Emmeline left in the forest to die as an infant because she has a twisted foot, and her people can’t afford to feed a mouth that isn’t going to contribute. Fortunately, she is saved by cows, and her father decides to heck with it, he’ll take care of her anyway.

Fast forward sixteen years or so, and it’s husband market day. The village has a lovely tradition of potential brides bidding on their husbands, auction-style. Sadly, the happy day is interrupted by soldiers who cart all the unattached men off to war (including Emmeline’s father). Sucks to be them.

Then the village gets swept away in a flash flood, but fortunately Emmeline falls into the river prior to that and is washed away downstream.

Enter love-interest Owen, who finds Emmeline washed up on the banks of his family’s dairy farm thanks to, you guessed it, a cow. He brings her home, despite her red hair that proclaims her one of the proscribed “dirt scratchers” (all dirt-scratchers have red hair). Owen likes to fight people bare-fisted, which is grand, except he gets injured by a monster of a man and is stuck recuperating back at home with Emmeline, who they disguise as a milkmaid.

After a while, Owen tries to teach Emmeline how to churn cream into butter, except that when she does so it turns into purest Hershey’s milk chocolate. Having never tasted anything without that lovely waxy flavor, the family decides Emmeline absolutely must stay so they can make a mint. They hand out samples to the other maids so that the town will know to come knocking down their doors on the morrow.

Sadly, Emmeline is kidnapped by a mercenary-minded peddler in the middle of the night, and when Owen hears the dastardly deed and tries to interfere he gets a knife through the ribs for his trouble.

In a bout of pure genius, the peddler decides that he should stake Emmeline out by the seashore near the hut of his leperous daughter until the rich folk in the country raise the bounty on her high enough to make it worth his while to turn in. Because that is clearly the best and least risky way to make money off someone who can magically pull chocolate out of their butt.

Sadly for Sir Peddler, his daughter dies, and with her dying act leaves the keys to the massive chains that secure Emmeline to the rocks. Emmeline scarpers, and in the act runs across a handsome farmer boy from her old village who tells her that the menfolk weren’t taken to fight but are actually now enslaved in a toxic gold mine that tends to kill people within months. Really sucks to be them.

Emmeline and the rogueish farmer come up with the brilliant idea that he should turn her in for the bounty to the king and queen and then use it to buy their people out of slavery. There is absolutely no way this plan can fail.

Meanwhile, Owen has been wandering around trying to find Emmeline, and manages to get himself caught by a corrupt tax collector (all the tax collectors are corrupt, because they are the final law in every village and serve the king and queen, who are evidently quite greedy). He’s carted off to the gold mine, which sucks for him. Thankfully, there is a fortuitous bare-fist tournament scheduled, and when the mine guards learn that he can fight bare-fisted, they enlist him as their champion, his skills sight-unseen. Thanks to some crafty wheedling, he prompts them to let him take along Emmeline’s father from the pit. Lucky for them! Sucks for the other poor shmucks who are still going to die in a month or two.

Back at the palace, Emmeline succeeds in selling herself into bondage using the amazing negotiation technique she learned from the peddler’s daughter. Although it is clear as day to the reader that the queen and king have no intention of paying the farmer and in fact likely have no operating cash on hand at all, Emmeline cluelessly accedes to make them mountains of chocolate so they can get rich selling it to other countries.

However, she wanders out of her cell at one point and overhears the king and queen evilly plotting to sell the chocolate for three times what they originally planned.

And then a meteor unexpectedly falls from the sky, kills off everyone in the country when it cracks open the earth and lets out the toxic gold fumes, and cows inherit the earth.

Just kidding! I stopped reading at that point because it was clear that absolutely everyone in the novel was, if not an idiot, about as complex a thinker as a kindergartner and I was sick of wasting my time on them.rtner and I was sick of wasting my time on them.

One other opinion

  1. Lilliana G. says:

    In the hard-cover version, each chapter starts with a little icon – either an oak leaf or a cow – that marks which character is speaking!