REVIEW: ‘Sweet & Bitter Magic’ by Adrienne Tooley is a decent debut


‘Sweet & Bitter Magic’ is a welcome addition to the genre — but not without some imperfections.

No matter how much I wanted to, I found it hard to fall in love with Sweet & Bitter Magic.

From the Blurb:

Tamsin is the most powerful witch of her generation. But after committing the worst magical sin, she’s exiled by the ruling Coven and cursed with the inability to love. The only way she can get those feelings back — even for just a little while — is to steal love from others.

Wren is a source — a rare kind of person who is made of magic, despite being unable to use it herself. Sources are required to train with the Coven as soon as they discover their abilities, but Wren — the only caretaker to her ailing father — has spent her life hiding her secret.

When a magical plague ravages the queendom, Wren’s father falls victim. To save him, Wren proposes a bargain: if Tamsin will help her catch the dark witch responsible for creating the plague, then Wren will give Tamsin her love for her father.

Of course, love bargains are a tricky thing, and these two have a long, perilous journey ahead of them — that is, if they don’t kill each other first…

As progressive as the young adult genre has become, especially with contemporary novels, it still feels like fantasy LGBTQ+ storylines are a rare sight. Either that, or I’ve just been looking in the wrong places. Regardless, I was thrilled as ever when I saw Sweet & Bitter Magic pop up a few weeks ago. Featuring witches, a world crouched under the shadow of impending doom and a gay enemies-to-lovers romance arc (kind of), what’s not to love?

Well, I’d find out soon enough.

To start, I was happy to find that Wren and Tamsin are compelling, fairly three-dimensional characters who held my attention throughout the book. Sure, their motivations aren’t wholly original, but Tooley adds a spin here and there to keep things fresh. Besides, since the girls’ personalities were complete opposites, there was never a dull moment between the two: an important factor, considering they’re together for more than 80% of the novel.

From the get-go, it’s easy to despise Tamsin. She’s tricky, impatient and heartless — literally. The only way she can feel love is by stealing it from others, causing her to make some of the most despicable deals imaginable. But then she can also be vulnerable and afraid, even if she doesn’t show it outwardly. After a while, it’s hard not to like her at least a little bit.

On the other hand, Wren couldn’t be more different: innocent to the point of being naïve and yet willing to do whatever it takes to keep those she loves safe. Paired with Tamsin, they make the perfect duo.

Of course, there’s the romance, which was another happy surprise. While it’s nowhere near perfect, especially since Wren isn’t even supposed to be able to love, it worked well enough (a.k.a. no insta-love!). Also, the main plot was never overshadowed to make room for the romance. Furthermore, Tooley expertly touches on themes like the death of a loved one, guilt and mental illness with understanding, further adding to the charm. It’s all wrapped up nicely with decent world building and a fresh magic system.

Unfortunately, this is where most of my delight ends and my disappointment begins.

While Tooley’s writing is skillful and entertaining throughout, even poetic at times, my biggest issue was with the pacing. As much as I enjoyed reading the blossoming relationship between Wren and Tamsin, the rest of the plot took far too long to catch up, especially in the beginning and middle. At times, scenes became so sluggish I imagine I would’ve called it quits completely had I not been doing a review; the book could’ve slashed 50 pages and lost nothing major. Finally, things come to an end with a somewhat awkward finale I saw coming a mile away.

Still, if you can stick it out, Sweet & Bitter Magic has more than a few great things to offer. After all, its characters are what shine through the most, and isn’t that the reason we all love to read?

Hits most of the marks

When he's not sinking hours behind a book or his keyboard, you can find Kevin coasting along the Pacific Coast Highway, probably pretending he's in a music video.

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