The Ex Hex
It seems fitting at this time of year to imagine a book as a brimming trick-or-treat bucket, every story element a different candy with a different flavor to (hopefully) be enjoyed. Sadly, The Ex Hex is full of candies such as Interchangeable Protagonists and Episodic Storytelling, with a few nuggets of Good Chemistry and Tragically Unrealized Potential mixed in.
The Ex Hex opens with a prologue set nine years earlier. Our heroine, nineteen-year-old witch Vivi Jones, has recently learned that her summer lover (and fellow witch), Rhys Penhallow, with his Welsh accent and talented tongue, is betrothed to someone else. Vivi attempts to lay a curse on Rhys: “make him the sort of man who will forever think the clitoris is exactly one-third of an inch away from where it actually is”. She thinks it doesn’t work and goes about her life for the next nine years, until Rhys returns. His family founded Vivi’s hometown, Graves Glen, and part of his duties are “to charge the ley lines” of the place (the equivalent of jumpstarting the battery of a magical car?). While Rhys has led a charmed life, when he sets foot in Graves Glen he becomes a chaos conduit and accidentally charges the town with pure calamity.
Let’s start with the first candy, Interchangeable Protagonists: a sort of wafer biscuit/candy hybrid, with some filling between the layers that has no discernable flavor. Vivi seems to have been similarly constructed: thinly, and mostly with elements of other witches from other books and movies. She’s got the strong sisterhood of her family like the Owens sisters in Practical Magic and the repressed magical talent of Diana in the All Souls series but no other personality traits other than a love of Wales (shocker). A bit of homage to other entries in a genre can be fun, but does not a dimensional character make. Rhys is somewhat better, coming across convincingly as charming, but beyond the few factoids we learn about him (including that he has two brothers, Llewellyn and BowenBowen – no, really), there’s not much to him either.
Then there is Episodic Storytelling: tiny candy bites flavored with something artificial that’s supposed to appeal to the brain’s desire for sugar in any form. The book’s structure is more like a sitcom than a book, with short chapters that are shallow in emotional content, and usually showcase a single Potentially Amusing Event. Honestly, all that was missing were expository headers like ‘The Ghost in the Library’ and ‘Vivi Takes on the Weird Skulls’.
Then there’s the Good Chemistry candy: a combination of simple, classic flavors (think pure milk chocolate and peanut butter). Vivi and Rhys have an intensely warm, though never graphically described, sexual relationship and attraction that is a highlight of the book. Rhys is the undisputed King of Cunnilingus, though even that represents a bit of a disappointment from a storytelling perspective. How much more interesting if Vivi had successfully broken Rhys’s Clit Compass and her quest to break the curse was really her quest to save her own sex life! And even that Good Chemistry candy gets tiresome when it becomes clear that it’s all Rhys and Vivi have binding them together. A human needs more than candy to survive, and a romance novel needs more than good sex to make a love story and HEA credible.
Which leads us to the final flavor, Tragically Unrealized Potential: sweet and a little unexpected. But there are only two of them in the bucket. Sterling (who is trying adult romance after a substantial career in YA as Rachel Hawkins) displays moments of imagination in the book – one of the acts of magic Vivi can manage is divining when a student’s paper has been plagiarized, and the library’s resident ghost is a girl from the 1990s in “a flannel shirt over a T-shirt and a pair of Converse high-tops with Sharpie doodles on the toes”. Unfortunately, none of that imagination extends to the book’s structure, plot, or characters.
With protagonists as substantial as paper dolls, an unbelievable romantic relationship, and a pervasive lack of depth, The Ex Hex fails sadly in its efforts to bewitch.