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Reading Guide for Witches

In The Witches of New York by ami

witches, asylums, flower-lore, and a 19th century handbook for women’s rights…

The discussion questions posted below are for use by book clubs and individual readers alike. (SPOILER ALERT – the discussion questions focus on various characters, themes and plot points of the novel, The Witches of New York. If you haven’t read the book and don’t wish to have anything revealed ahead of time…don’t read past this point.)

Description of the Novel:

From the publishers:
In the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, comes a new novel from historical fiction maven Ami McKay that transports readers to the heart of Victorian New York, where three witches practice their craft—to the delight of some—but at their own peril.

Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply.

The year is 1880 and New York is fast becoming the “city of wonders.” Telegraph lines crisscross Manhattan, elevated trains race above the streets, the Brooklyn Bridge is nearing completion, and work is underway to fit Broadway with electric lights. As enterprising men chase after their ambitions, the ladies of Manhattan’s high society pursue their dreams by enlisting the help of two women who run a teashop near Madison Square. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, the pair dares to declare themselves witches.

Enter Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair. At their humble teashop, Tea and Sympathy, they provide a place for whispered confessions, secret cures, and spiritual assignations for a select society of ladies, who speak the right words and ask the right questions. But the profile of Tea and Sympathy is about to change with the fortuitous arrival of Beatrice Dunn.

When seventeen-year-old Beatrice leaves the safety of her village to answer an ad that reads “Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply,” she has little inclination of what the job will demand of her. Beatrice doesn’t know it yet, but she is no ordinary small-town girl; she has astounding spiritual gifts—ones that will serve as her greatest asset and also place her in grave danger. Under the tutelage of Adelaide and Eleanor, Beatrice comes to harness many of her powers, but not even they can prepare her for the evils lurking in the darkest corners of the city or the courage it will take to face them. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?


Reading Group Questions for The Witches of New York:

1. How do the female characters in the novel, (Beatrice, Adelaide, Eleanor, Judith Dashley, Marietta Stevens, Georgina Davis, and Aunt Lydia) break with the traditional roles of women in the 19th century? Which of them do you identify with, and why?

2. Women who choose to live outside the norms of society have historically been ostracized and condemned for their actions. The novel touches on some of punishments inflicted on women who dared to be different, such as witch trials, executions, and being put in mental asylums against their will. Do you see any parallels with how women are viewed today? What sorts of judgements and punishments do women experience for being considered outside the norm (for being different, powerful, outspoken, “witchy” etc.)?

3. The witches in the novel (Adelaide, Beatrice and Eleanor) all believe in and practice various forms of “witchcraft” rooted in women’s wisdom—herbalism, divination, ritual magic, superstition etc. Are there any traditions, from your family and/or your culture that others might interpret as “witchery”? What place, if any, do these traditions hold in modern society?

4. The meaning of the word “witch” has changed over time and has been through multiple interpretations in literature, media and society. What does the word mean today? What might explain the current trend of women reclaiming it as part of the larger trend towards feminist activism?

5. Moth from The Virgin Cure is now Adelaide in The Witches of New York. In what ways has she changed? In what ways has she stayed the same?

6. The worlds of magic, science, fantasy and reality collide within the pages of the novel. Both Beatrice Dunn and Dr. Quinn Brody seek to make sense of things that can’t be explained. How are they alike or different in their journeys? Have you ever experienced something paranormal that can’t be explained?

7. The secondary characters in the novel include ghosts, fairies, a demon, and a talking raven. Perdu says on a number of occasions that he is no bird. Who or what do you think he is? (The answer can be found in the “additional reading” links at the end of this post.)


Additional resources and reading: 

When it pains you not to speak.  (An essay on the origin of the word “witch” and what it means today.)

Ravens and Riddles (A journal entry about the inspiration behind Perdu, and the secret behind who he really is.)

Toronto Star review of The Witches of New York

Starred review of The Witches of New York from Kirkus

Interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio’s The Next Chapter

Archive of all my journal entries pertaining to Witches.

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HalCon 2017

In The Witches of New York, the writing life, Witchy Wednesday by ami

So excited for Hal-Con!

I’ll be ushering in autumn this year by attending Hal-Con…as an author! In years past, I’ve gone to “the biggest, geekiest sci-fi convention in Atlantic Canada” with my family and had a total blast, so I’m SUPER excited to be one of this year’s featured authors.

Of course I also have a ton of burning questions…Which Kiki’s Delivery Service t-shirt do I wear? How do I keep my cool while fan-girling over Tamora Pierce? What’s my limit when it comes to buying new D&D dice? Hopefully I’ll get that all figured out before I go.

If you’re headed to Hal-Con, I’d love to see you at one of the three panels I’m on, and/or during one of my signing times. Here’s my schedule for the Con… (and I may also try to add a time when anyone sporting witchy cosplay can meet at my author table for a group photo!)

Friday, September 22 —3pm

“Writing Historically” – a panel with Steven Erikson, Tamora Pierce and Ami McKay

Fantasy can take many forms in many universes, including our own.  Our panel will talk about how to create believable fiction in any time period.

Friday September 22 —4:15-5-15

Signing at Author table B9 (I’ll have my magic cauldron with me…so drop by and get your bookish fortune!)

Saturday September 23 — 3pm

“The Creative Process” – a panel with Alexander Freed, Conor McCreery and Ami McKay

Being creative can mean different things to different people.  It’s a journey that varies for every artist from every medium.  And…it’s a journey that our panelists will be sharing their own perpectives on!

Saturday September 23 — 4:30-5:30

Signing at Author table B9 (I’ll have my magic cauldron with me…so drop by and get your bookish fortune!)

Sunday, September 24 — 2:45 pm

“Witchcraft: From History to Fiction”

Witches have been a cause of fear and fascination for centuries.  In the past they filtered into nightmares and caused the death of dozens of innocent women.  More recently, they have taken a role in fantasy and fiction as strong portrayals of these female characters.

Please join Professor Kathryn Morris and Author Ami McKay as they talk the fact and fiction behind witches.

Sunday, September 24 — 4:30-5:30

Signing at Author table B9 (I’ll have my magic cauldron with me…so drop by and get your bookish fortune!)

This gorgeous witchy keepsake box and Tarot card set will be up for auction at Hal-Con.

Each year at Hal-Con they hold a charity auction in support of IWK and Kids Help Phone. For my contribution to this year’s auction, the amazing Ian McKay has designed and crafted a gorgeous keepsake box to accompany a witchy Tarot set that includes: the Robin Wood Tarot, “Grimoire” – an enchanting fragrance created by BARRE studios for The Witches of New York, signed copies of The Virgin Cure and The Witches of New York, and some delicious witchy tea!

See you at Hal-Con 2017!!

Hal-Con 2013, when youngest boy-o was still shorter than me…


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tea and sympathy

In Nothing Less!, The Birth House, The Witches of New York, Uncategorized, Witchy Wednesday by ami

morning light on teacups.

In certain circles in the 19th century, drinking tea was considered a dangerous habit. More specifically, working class women were discouraged from engaging in the practice because if they were taking time from their daily chores to congregate around a pot of tea, it could only mean that they were up to no good. In short: “Sipping tea was once thought of as a reckless, suspicious act, linked to revolutionary feminism.” (Alison Aubrey, for

No wonder I love it so! 

reading the leaves

My love affair with tea began in my early 20’s. Up to that point, I hadn’t given it much thought. It had been an occasional treat in my childhood home, mostly in the summer, when my mom would get out her sun-tea jar and brew up a batch to be served iced and sweet.

The summer I started grad school, everything changed. One afternoon, after weeks of drought, a thunderstorm cut loose and provided a heavy, welcome rain. My roommate Dawn and I were sitting on the front porch of our house watching the deluge come down when I told her, “I bet I could wash my hair in that rain.” She laughed and replied, “I’d like to see you try!” After lathering up, I leaned over the porch railing and started to rinse my hair. For a finale, I danced in the puddles on the sidewalk in front of the house and shook my curls clear of any remaining suds.

As I was towelling off, a knock came at the door. It was the woman who lived two houses down…a woman we knew very little about, except that she had a beautiful set of wind chimes on her front porch and a large back lot surrounded by a tall, solid wooden fence. (There was no way to see through it. We’d tried. )

“Hello,” the woman said, staring at me. “I was watching you. I saw what you did.” I looked to Dawn and she looked at me, both of us worried that our neighbour was there to complain about my raucous, weird behaviour. Instead, she gave me a warm smile and said, “I was wondering if you’d like to come to my house for tea.”

William McGregor Paxton, “Tea Leaves” 1909

Tea at Brenda’s.

I said yes, and soon discovered that my neighbour Brenda, was a witch. She used the word proudly and freely, and it suited her in the best possible sense. Her home was filled with all that you’d expect (pitted antique mirrors, crystal balls, tarot cards, owl wings…the list goes on.) And her back yard? A walled garden, lush with flowers and herbs, all grown in the service of healing and magic.

I started going to her house once a week, sometimes with Dawn, sometimes without, sometimes to meet other women who were part of Brenda’s circle. Tea was always the central focus of our visits—tea for stimulating the mind, for nourishing the body, for soothing the soul, for guiding the spirits, for telling the future, for conjuring dreams. It’s played an important part in my life ever since.

tasseography – the art of using tea leaves for divination.


“We had a kettle; we let it leak:
Our not repairing made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe.”

It stands to reason that tea would find its way into my writing. In The Birth House, midwife Marie Babineau brews tea on several occasions (medicinal and otherwise) and peers into women’s tea cups to “see what’s in store.” In The Witches of New York, witches Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom run a tea shop called “Tea and Sympathy” where women congregate to share their secrets and have their troubles solved. The rituals and superstitions surrounding tea are observed and noted throughout the novel: Two spoons placed on the same saucer mean a wedding will soon follow; two women pouring from the same pot means one will soon carry a child; tea spilled from the spout of a carried pot means a secret will soon be revealed; tea stirred while in the pot will surely stir up a quarrel. In once scene, teatime brings forth the spirit of a lost child. In another, tea fosters prophetic dreams.

In the play, “Nothing Less!” tea is served at a local suffragist meeting alongside plans for political rebellion. The intrepid band of female activists exchange information, ideas and aspirations all while sipping Red Rose and having their tea leaves read.

In my mind, tea and feminism go hand in hand. Grandmother’s teacups aren’t stuffy relics that should easily be dismissed. Great movements have been borne of teatimes past. Radical thought and blessed magic, too.

If we are to persist, my darlings…perhaps we need more tea.