Three things I enjoy: a glass of wine, supporting local farmers, and folklore. Author Gwen Clayton combined all three into an intriguing and entertaining offering of WitchLit. In my last entry (which was in May, my gosh), I explored a loose definition of WitchLit and committed myself to reading and reviewing such titles on my blog. Clayton caught my eye last year when I realized she’s also in ADF and her religion inspired characters and situations in her novels.
First, the book blurb:
BUSINESS CLASS DIDN’T TEACH THIS KIND OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Manuel Chavez grew up in the vineyards as the son of a migrant farmworker. All his life, the good Catholic boy heard rumors of Fermata Cellars being haunted, but he never believed them until he accepted a job as the winery’s marketing director. When a corrupt city councilman tries to snake the land away from his Pagan employers, he has to confront his fear of the supernatural to determine whether or not the nuisance should be abated.
The premise of Fermata Cellars intrigued me and reminded me of By Earth: The Witches of Portland Book One by T. Thorn Coyle in that the antagonists are corrupt officials. There’s also an element of religious conflict which looms over the characters both in regards to the fate of the storied vineyard, and in Manuel’s personal baggage as he grapples with his identity and how he fits into the community.
I’m going to explain what I liked in a moment, but I want to get this part out of the way. To be honest, I often struggle getting into stories written as journals (hello Dracula!), and it was difficult for me believe that someone would document such detailed dialog in their diary. The minutia of Manuel’s record-keeping, such as his marketing plan budget, sometimes detracted from the mysteries of the vineyard, but that’s just me. He initially starts the journal to help him keep track of the details, and I suppose Manuel has a very good memory! I also want potential readers to know that characters use several slurs. Some of them are Romani people, and the author uses a more controversial title for them. It definitely reveals something about the characters when they speak as they do, but you may find it jarring and at times unnecessary. One of my favorite scenes actually involved a young woman calling Manuel out on using one!
Curiosity in who ultimately haunted the Fermata Cellars kept me going, as well as a desire to see more about the Comatis, a fictionalized group of Pagan people who have deep roots in the Rivervine community. They are very open about their religious identity, and many run local businesses in addition to growing grapes and producing wine. Overall, the portrayal was a glimpse at what could be if a large number of polytheists lived together in the same village.
I suppose I should have been weirded out, but they didn’t do anything that was downright scary. Everyone kept their clothes on. The children were safe. No demons appeared out of the bonfire. It was just incense and candles and tossing stuff into the flames like pennies in a wishing well.Manuel reflects on a ritual in Gwen Clayton’s Fermata Cellars.
In addition to the supernatural suspense, Clayton populated Fermata Cellars with an intriguing cast of characters. I enjoyed learning about Manuel’s friend Lily and would have liked more of her. There’s also Glenda, a journalist who decides to write a novel about the spirits who inhabit the vineyard. Even one of the antagonists, Edie, has a strong voice I clearly heard in my head whenever she spoke.
Another strength is Clayton’s ability to bring the setting to life. Notes and acknowledgements reveal some of the locations and experiences that inspired Rivervine. I have a soft spot for story locations that are as much of a character as anyone else!
If you’re seeking a romantic read, there is a small subplot, as well as LGBTQ+ representation, but it’s not a major focus. However, if you thirst for a ghostly whodunit with realistically described rituals based on actual practice by an author immersed in polytheism and her landscape, this may be your cup of tea! (Or your glass of wine!)