Emmy Harlow has returned to her magical hometown of Thistle Grove after a nine-year, self-imposed exile. When Emmy left just after high school, she thought she would never return. As a part of one of the founding witch families of the town, Emmy felt confined by her family name, and a bad breakup in high school left her needing to forge a different path. But now her family has called her home for a once-every-50-years Thistle Grove tradition: a magical competition among the town’s four founding witch families to win the role of leadership and dominance. As the designated scion of the Harlow line, Emmy feels a responsibility to her family to come home and do her part as arbiter of the event.
The witches of Thistle Grove must remain connected to the town in order to keep their magic, so Emmy lost hers years ago. But when she returns home, Emmy feels that power come flooding back. She never thought she would miss the town, but reconnecting with her friends and family and magic reminds her how much she feels a bond to Thistle Grove and the people who live there. It also gives her a chance to run into Talia Avramov, a gorgeous witch from one of the other founding families. Emmy has long been drawn to Talia, but never thought she had a chance with her. But as they spend time together, it seems clear Talia is interested and the women begin to explore the relationship.
Emmy also learns that the very same guy who broke her heart years ago, Gareth Blackmoore, was also recently caught cheating on Emmy’s friend, Linden, and on Talia. Given that Gareth is competing for his family in the magical tournament, the women can’t help but wonder if there is a way to take him down a peg. The Blackmoores win almost every tournament, giving them power over the other families. They would love to turn the tables, particularly after how badly Gareth treated Emmy, Linden, and Talia. As arbiter, there are rules Emmy can’t and won’t break, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some room for creativity. As the women prepare to battle it out in the tournament, Emmy and Talia’s bond grows as well. But with Emmy planning to return to Chicago when the tournament is over, there may not be any chance for a future between her and Talia.
Payback’s a Witch is a lot of fun and drew me in right away. Emmy has a great voice as the POV character, with a humorous take on the town and its citizens. It sets the tone of the book right from the start — light, snarky, clever, and with enough seriousness to give weight to the story.
The world building is a lot of fun here, with the founding families competing in this every 50 year magical tournament for dominance. Harper does a great job developing these four witch families, giving them each some distinguishing traits that play out in their personalities and their magic. Talia’s family, for example, has a darker magic and they are skilled at speaking to the dead and connecting to the spirits, while Emmy’s family are the scholars and scribes. It is cleverly done, as it helps to distinguish the characters and their families and give readers an immediate sense of them. I loved the magical tournament and following along with the challenges was one of my favorite parts of the book. I would say the story gave me Harry Potter Tri-Wizard tournament vibes, plus a dash of the Mystic Falls founding families from Vampire Diaries. Not that I felt this story was derivative, but it had a lot of that same energy. I also really enjoyed learning more about Emmy’s magic (and following along as she learned more about it herself). So overall, lots of clever world building here and I really think the way Harper sets up these families and their unique styles works well for the story.
The conflicts here are two-fold, though they intertwine. First, we have the tournament and the women’s desire to see the Blackmoore’s winning streak ended, in part to get back at Gareth. And second, the question of what will happen with Emmy and Talia’s budding relationship when it is all over and she returns to Chicago. Emmy left nine years ago after Gareth broke her heart the summer before her senior year in high school. He made it clear that he didn’t want to pursue something long-term with a Harlow, as they have much less magic than the Blackmoores. It made Emmy want to break free of her town and her family name and rediscover herself. But it also meant she left Thistle Grove after graduating high school, never to return for nine years, or to even see her family in all that time. She still harbors anger at Gareth and that is only refueled upon returning home, especially after learning he hurt Linden, as well as Talia, with his cheating. So Gareth is the clear enemy here, as well as the Blackmoore family as a whole, given they have the most power and magical influence in town.
I will admit, I do love the idea of these thwarted women working to get payback for the wrongs inflicted. And I love even more that as two of Gareth’s exes, Emmy and Talia end up together instead. There is kind of a delicious element to the fact that they find their happiness together after he hurt both of them. But I also had some issues I couldn’t totally put aside. First, I struggled with the fact that so much of Emmy’s life felt in reaction to Gareth. These women are all portrayed as strong and independent and forces to be reckoned with. Yet Emmy changed the course of her entire life, leaving the town that she loved, her family and friends, and losing her magic, all triggered because a guy dumped her the summer after 11th grade. She didn’t return for nine years (and honestly hadn’t planned to ever return) and never even saw her parents, who she loves and cares about, as she was trying to create distance from her old life. I’ll admit, it made me sad to see that so much of her life has been forged in reaction to a man, particularly given that they were just teenagers at the time. Yes, he was a jerk, but it felt like it gave Gareth so much power over her life, rather than Emmy having her own agency. The story does nod to the fact that Emmy felt other constraints due to her family’s reputation and history with the town, but really, the only thing that we hear about in any detail is the heartbreak from Gareth.
The women then turn around and try to ruin Gareth’s chances of winning the competition, partly because they hate him, and partly to take down his family. We learn that the winning family ends up with magical power and influence that helps them succeed, and that the Blackmoore’s businesses are thriving, while the other families are struggling. So the women justify their actions of trying to sabotage Gareth as evening the scales among the families. So instead of each trying to win on their own, they team up to basically stop him from winning. Part of the problem was it was never clear to me if winning the tournament in the past actually gave the Blackmoore’s an unfair advantage. It was also not clear that the Blackmoores were actually doing anything to intentionally harm these other families or businesses. I think if that had been more directly laid out, it would have felt less problematic. As it was, I actually felt bad for Gareth at times watching them all work to sabotage him at this important event that had nothing to do with the personal relationships they had with him. So again, for these strong and powerful women, I struggled that so much was focused around this man. It just felt like he had too much emotional power and I wanted to see these women thrive on their own, not in reaction to Gareth.
Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this one. The world building was great, the characters engaging, and the tone just really sparked. I really liked Emmy as the POV character and she has a great narrative voice that works well for the story. We meet some great characters and learn a lot about this unusual town. I was really excited to learn that this is a series, and I definitely am looking forward to see what is next for Thistle Grove. If you enjoy magical worlds, strong female characters, and a bit of retribution for past wrongs, this one is worth your time.