YA Book Review: “A Tall Dark Trouble” — Witchy Doings in Cuba and Florida
By Sarah Osman
I’m happy to add the brujas of A Tall Dark Trouble to my own personal spell book featuring the names of the witches I love.
A Tall Dark Trouble by Vanessa Montalban. Zando Young Readers, 384 pages.
I love a good witch. This may be because I grew up at a time when witches reigned supreme: Sabrina The Teenage Witch, The Craft, Harry Potter (or, as others have pointed out, might be more properly titled Hermione Granger versus the Patriarchy), Wicked, Hocus Pocus. However, there was one central witchy duo that I missed: the sisters in Practical Magic.
Because I’m not familiar with the spells cast in Practical Magic, I wasn’t sure about what to expect of Vanessa Montalban’s latest YA fantasy, A Tall Dark Trouble, which is being described to readers as “Practical Magic meets Erika L. Sanchez.” The book’s premise intrigued me: A Tall Dark Trouble follows “a Cuban family of brujas who get entangled in love, magic, and murder, alternating between 1980s Cuba and present-day Miami.” Oh, now we’re getting brujas? And the weirdness of Florida?
Two linked storylines run parallel throughout the novel. At first, how these two narratives will come together is murky. But, as the narrative develops, the interconnections become abundantly clear. Montalban takes her time dispensing revelations, but once she does the novel moves at a rapid-fire speed, to the point that it is difficult to put down.
The first plot follows twin sisters Ofelia and Delfi Sanchez. They are currently living in Miami with their ulta-strict Mami, who insists that magic is not to be messed with. That’s a little hard to do, since the twins are both experiencing visions of murders. The pair decide it’s time to embrace their magical abilities; they set out to try and save those in danger and, ultimately, solve the mystery behind the deaths. The domestic challenge: the twins have to make sure their Mami doesn’t find out what they’re up to.
The second plot follows Anita, who is living in ’80s Cuba. She’s dealing with her slightly terrifying Mama Orti, a powerful bruja who belongs to a secret society of elders who serve “el comandante.” Anita knows she will soon be forced to join the coven — even though that’s her worst fear. Eventually, Anita’s story crosses with Ofelia and Delfi’s.
The chapters alternate between Anita’s, Olfelia’s, and Delfi’s point of view. I was most intrigued by Anita’s story, which serves as an apt metaphor for communist control and repression in Cuba. Anita’s story had the highest stakes; it was by far the most suspenseful, while also doubling as a valuable history lesson. Delfi’s voice, for me, was the more defined (and interesting) of the twins, partly because of its determination to persevere, and because her chemistry with her ex-detective-in-training, Andres, is pure fire.
Ofelia is the quieter twin, so her voice is often overshadowed by Delfi’s. Of course, a more subdued character need not be boring, yet Ofelia fell a little flat. Partly this is due to her desire to be with Ethan, her childhood friend; she can’t because a family curse has been placed on the men who fall in love with the Sanchez women. Still, the relationship between Delfi and Ofelia works like a charm. They love one another, but have to deal with the typical snafus that arise between twins. Delfi fumes over Ofelia’s hesitancy around using magic. Ofelia fumes over Delfi’s seeming recklessness. At the end of the day though, they are there for one another.
That said, not everything fits together neatly. The magical world of A Tall Dark Trouble is more than a little confusing. At the beginning of the book Montalban includes a helpful glossary that details the different types of magic and creatures involved in the story. But reminders of what exactly these figures are would have been welcome. On the other hand, Montalban’s use of Spanish is done with real skill, and she smoothly incorporates translations into the text for those who don’t know the language.
I still haven’t watched Practical Magic. I better do so soon or else some of my girlfriends may kick me out of our coven. Even without that exposure, I’m happy to add the brujas of A Tall Dark Trouble to my own personal spell book featuring the names of the witches I love.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman