Mindhealer by Lilith Saintcrow
rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm actually reviewing all five of the Watcher books. They're quite shortâ€”novella length, reallyâ€”and very much interrelated (especially the first four). I read all of them in about a day and a half, despite doing other things. I do advise taking them all in row, which is the equivalent of reading one "normal" novel.
Dark Watcher opens in Santiago City (aka Saint City), with a quartet of witches. Mindhealer is the only book that takes place outside of Santiago City, which seems to be the primary setting for all of Saintcrow's novels (from what I've read in their descriptions).
Theodora, earth witch and healer, runs the Cauldron, an occult book and supply store. Mariamne Niege (water witch, prognosticator) and Elise Nicholson (fire witch) work for her in addition to being, respectively, a graduate student and a musician. Suzanne (air witch, I don't believe we ever learn her last name) is Elise's foster mother and their teacher, something of a high priestess to the little group.
The four women know that they're psychic and that "magick" is real. They don't know that they are "Lightbringers," that there are groups and creatures in the world that hunt them, or that a group called Circle Lightfall trains and sends out "Watchers" to protect (and recruit) Lightbringers in order to counterbalance the darkness in the world.
Watchers are formerly wicked men with some psychic talents who have been given a chance to redeem themselves. They are bonded with a tanak, a dark symbiote that gives them supernatural speed, strength, healing power, and longevity. The tanak also makes it possible for them to sense darkness, but it causes the Watchers to experience pain whenever they're around Lightbringers.
The catch is that for every Watcher, there is one Witch whose presence and touch will be intensely pleasurable instead of torturous. The hope of finding that one witch is what keeps each Watcher going, fighting and surviving horrific wounds for one chance at happiness.
The use of the tired soulmate meme (though that specific word is never used) is annoying, and it detracts from what is otherwise a fairly original concept. The fact that there are only male Watchers, though there are a few (mostly queer) male lightbringers, is a bigger disappointment. The reasoning given is that women do not have the viciousness to kill without hesitation. That's simplistic, at best. Male lightbringers are also painted as weaker than females, and that, in combination with the pedestal upon which Watchers place Lightbringers, unbalances the novels.
Theodora is the main subject of the first book. Mariamne is the focus of Storm Watcher. Fire Watcher, of course, is primarily about Elise. We meet a new air witch, Anya Harris, in Cloud Watcher. And finally, Mindhealer is about Caro Robbins, whose brother plays a small part in Fire Watcher.
The books should certainly be classified as romances first, although they do have very strong paranormal themes. Every book follows the classic romance novel formula. The fact that I kept reading despite my dislike of romances is a testament to Saintcrow's talent.
I suspect that the author either is pagan, or is very familiar with pagan practices. The rituals in each novel are nicely done, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear people using some of the invocations used in Circle.
I do have to propose the Watcher drinking game. Take a shot every time there's any mention of treating a Watcher "dreadfully," and every time a Watcher moans about how unworthy he is to be in the presence of a Lightbringer. You'll be past noticing any formulae in no time!
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