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Fiction Historical

Half Spent Was the Night

A Witches' Yuletide

by (author) Ami McKay

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2018
Historical, Occult & Supernatural, Literary
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2018
    List Price

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Beloved author Ami McKay is back, bringing us a magical follow-up in the tradition of Victorian winter tales to her mesmerizing bestseller, The Witches of New York.

During the nights between Christmas and New Year's, the witches of New York--Adelaide Thom, Eleanor St. Clair and the youngest, Beatrice Dunn--gather before the fire to tell ghost stories and perform traditional Yuletide divinations. (Did you know that roasting chestnuts was once used to foretell one's fate?)
     As the witches roast chestnuts and melt lead to see their fate, a series of odd messengers land on their doorstep bearing invitations for a New Year's Eve masquerade hosted by a woman they've never met. Gossip, dreams and portents follow, leading the witches to question the woman's motives. Is she as benevolent as she seems or is she laying a trap? And so, as Gilded-Age New York prepares to ring in the new year, the witches don their finery and head for the ball, on the hunt for answers that might well be the end of them.

About the author

Ami McKay was born and raised in Indiana. She moved to Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia, in 2000. Her first novel, The Birth House, is a Canadian bestseller and was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is currently at work on her second novel.

Ami McKay's profile page

Excerpt: Half Spent Was the Night: A Witches' Yuletide (by (author) Ami McKay)

December 29, 1881

Christmas Day has come and gone, the New Year lies ahead. Strange things happen Between the Years, in the days outside of time. Minutes go wild, hours vanish. Idleness becomes a clever thief, stealing the names of the days of the week, muting the steady tick of watches and clocks. These are the hours when angels, ghosts, demons and meddlers ride howling wind and flickering candlelight, keen to stir unguarded hearts and restless minds.

Tonight, the three Witches of New York, swathed in dressing gowns of velvet and silk, are seated on tasseled pillows before a crackling fire.
They’ve set the business of potions, spells and con­sultations aside, in favour of quiet contemplation. The youngest, Beatrice, touchstone of spirits, is curious and bright-eyed. The eldest, Eleanor, keeper of spells, is watchful, regal and wise. Adelaide, seer of fate, sits between them, ever ready to speak her mind. Bellies full of honey cake and hot cider, they seek comfort, warmth, companionship and glimpses of the future.

Beatrice scores a chestnut with a small knife to prepare it for roasting. “My aunt Lydia always said a cracked nut means ‘yes,’ and one that burns without cracking means ‘no.’” The fire hisses and pops. A spark flies into the air and lands on the hearth where it pulses, then dies. After placing her chestnut in a shallow pan, she sets the pan on the fire and waits for an answer.

Eleanor watches with anticipation. So does Perdu, her raven familiar.

The bird is keen for the sweet roasted meat of the nut. Eleanor, for a morsel of truth. She knows Beatrice is keeping a secret.

A faint yessss sounds before the chestnut squeals and its shell blossoms in an attempt to turn itself inside out.

Eleanor stares at her young apprentice. Is she happy, sad or indifferent at these portents?
Tugging at her braid, Beatrice bites her lip, then smiles when she realizes how closely she’s being watched.

“Pleased?” Adelaide asks, fishing for the truth she knows Eleanor wants to uncover.

Beatrice doesn’t answer. Nor does she meet the eyes of her companions.

Distracted or determined, Eleanor wonders. Which is it?
Neither. The girl is mulling over the answer she’s received. Yes, she thinks, but when? For weeks she’s been ravenous with longing for a stranger she’s only seen in her dreams. It isn’t love, exactly. How could it be? It’s more a relent­less curiosity. She would follow the Stranger any­where. And she has, on many nights, chasing his dark figure through dimly lit corridors and graveyards bathed in moonlight. In the morning she wakes exhausted, wishing she could go back
to sleep, desperate to return to the last place she saw him. Even if she could explain her state to her friends, she wouldn’t. She’s afraid that once she gives voice to her vision, the Stranger will disappear from her mind forever. Whenever she attempts to write an account of her dreams, his voice sounds in her head: Don’t break the spell. It leaves her puzzled, intrigued. Are the fay-folk Eleanor so often speaks of the source of these visions? Or do they come from someplace else? The girl has plied herself with many cups of dream tea, offered countless trinkets made of mother-of-pearl and coloured glass in order to persuade the fickle creatures to bring her answers, all to no avail. How long must I continue the chase? At least now (if the humble chestnut is to be believed), she knows she’s des­tined to meet the Stranger in the flesh. Even if I don’t know the how or why of it.
Picking the chestnut from the pan, she deftly peels the shell from the meat. It’s piping hot but she’s not concerned with getting burned. She’s thinking instead of the Stranger, of how soon she can go to sleep and find him in her dreams.

Holding the fleshy heart of the nut in the palm of her hand until it cools, she offers it to Perdu.

“Who’s a good bird?” the raven coos before snatching the treat in his beak.

“What if yes or no isn’t enough?” Eleanor asks. She wants Beatrice to perform another divi­nation. Maybe then she’ll be able to figure out what’s on the girl’s mind.

“If you need to choose between different situ­ations,” Beatrice replies, “you must name each chestnut according to your choices, then kiss them for luck before putting them into the fire. The order in which they burst is either the order in which you must address the issues or the way in which things will ultimately come to pass.”

“Situations, or suitors?” Adelaide teases. She’s noticed Beatrice growing more preoccupied by the day—moving about like a sleepwalker, twirl­ing her hair with absent-minded vigour. She’s convinced the girl is having a secret affair. She knows the blush of lust when she sees it. Good for her, she thinks. If only Eleanor would stop worry­ing and leave Beatrice to it.

Editorial Reviews


“The sequel to Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York is worth the wait.” —Parents Canada

“Beautiful.” —The Chronicle Herald

“The perfect holiday novel for those who don’t resonate with the modern, heavily commercialized version of Christmas and lean more toward the Wiccan Yule festival. Or for those who simply want to escape from the holiday madness with some truly transporting historical fiction.” —Hello Giggles

“A Christmas ghost story is a tradition that hearkens back to pagan times and earlier. McKay’s sweet little book about three witches makes a lovely stocking stuffer.” —The Hamilton Spectator

Praise for Ami McKay's previous book, THE WITCHES OF NEW YORK

“A magical little book. . . . Combines humour, the occult and history into a fascinating and fun novel of women supporting each other.” —The Vancouver Sun

“Widely considered part of the A-list of contemporary writers, McKay has created and occupied a vital territory in Canadian letters, with scrupulously researched historical fiction foregrounding female characters and lives against traditionally masculine settings and milieus. . . . For all its ideas, its imperatives, The Witches of New York is a keenly pleasurable reading experience, and over all too soon. One cannot help but want to spend more time in the company of these witches.” —National Post

“An ‘enchanting’ read that’ll leave you horrified. Fans of Victorian fiction will enjoy this outing. All of tropes of the time are present here: the glamour of the Gilded Age, the tragedy of prostitutes and Fallen Women, the suffering of the toiling lower classes, the growing power of the suffragettes and the ever-present spectres of ghosts, angels and demons. The book is richly researched, and packed with enticing historical detail. McKay’s prose is, as always, superb—the descriptions enchanting, the narrative arcs compelling, the characters dear (or deliciously sinister, as the case may be). But it is the emotion of the novel that lingers longest, the pervading horror over the persecution of women.” —Toronto Star

“Step into an exciting and spellbinding world, brought to us by the soaring imagination of Ami McKay . . . a celebrated purveyor of intrigue, dark arts and fascinating fragments of real history. . . . A dark, atmospheric tale. . . . McKay’s seductive novel unfurls slowly amidst a miasma of menace, mischief, mystery and mesmerising magic. . . . This a clever, compelling story of determined, independent women fighting for a place in a man’s world of chauvinism, oppression and prejudice. . . . Using the atmospheric backdrop of New York City on the cusp of monumental change and packed with the wisdom of the ages and the authority of an author with a resonant message, this is a rich, chilling and thrilling story.” —Lancashire Evening

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