If the tagline “Come for the waffles. Stay for the magic.” doesn’t grab you by the throat and plunge your eyeballs straight into Terry Maggert’s Halfway Dead then you, my friend…well, probably haven’t met the right waffle. Which is all the more reason to visit the good witch Carlie at the diner in Halfway.
Halfway is a town in the Adirondack Mountains “exactly halfway in the middle of something,” a liminal space that’s equal parts “tourist destination, pit stop for travelers, and a repository of more things magical than I care to think about” – which is why protagonist Carlie McEwan frequently finds herself occupied with the mysterious hidden world around this cozy town. Strange forces have begun to stir in Halfway Dead. When a dumb YouTuber gets himself lost in the unforgiving mountain terrain, he unwittingly stumbles upon one of the last surviving groves of American Chestnut trees, thus setting off a race to find the trees…which happen to be sitting upon an area rife with dark, dangerous magic, and home to an equally dark mystery in Carlie’s family history. Aided by a mysterious investigator and a vampire Viking hermit, she must venture into the woods to stop this magic – before it kills (again).
I knew I was going to like Halfway Dead the moment I picked it up – I mean, waffles and magic, what more could a girl ask for? – but I ended up surprised by the specific ways in which I liked it. Frankly, the plot was the least interesting thing about it – not because it wasn’t interesting, but rather because the world and characters surrounding it were that much more interesting. More than the quirky magical adventure that the tagline led me to expect, Halfway Dead reads like a love letter to the beauties and dangers of the Adirondack Mountains. This is heightened by the fact that Carlie’s magic is nature-based, equally as beautiful and equally as dangerous as the natural world from which it derives. The book is also clear that Carlie is not a storybook witch or a stereotype (“I’m a witch. A real one, not some amateur who reads things on the Internet and likes to dress up.”), and while I don’t know enough about the practices of modern witches to comment on the accuracy of the depiction, the practical, down-to-earth way in which her magic is presented has the depth of research-based writing. Maggert’s descriptions of Carlie’s magic are simply wonderful, with thoughtful attention to detail that ultimately builds to Carlie’s own evaluation of her skill (“For now, I treat my magic like a new pair of shoes. Someday we’re going to love each other, but for now we’re just trying to fit together comfortably”) and her treatment of both nature and things in general (“I take care of my things, because they return the favor”).
I could easily see a modern witch practicing in the same way that Carlie does (albeit without the same magical clout), and this is one of the hinges upon which the book rests.
The other hinge is the town of Halfway itself, and the mountains surrounding. Halfway is unique among fictional mountain towns in that it’s not a Deliverance-inspired backwater, but a cozy town where everyone knows everyone, the locals are charming, where Carlie’s magic is known and appreciated (though not by all and not entirely fathomed even by those), and its only real limitation (or perhaps one of its greatest strengths) is its sheer distance from everything else.
I’d go to the Hawthorn Diner to try Carlie’s waffles as much as I would to hear of Tammy Cincotti’s dating conquests, take tea with Carlie’s classy, fearsome Gran, or just to hear the servers talk their special brand of diner pidgin that names a half stack of pancakes after the shortest member of the staff and somehow makes raisin bread appealing by rechristening it “bug toast.” I would eat bug toast here until Carlie had to magic up a spell to roll me out. The town is a homey point of pleasantry buried deep in a mountain range that, despite its wondrous beauty, does not give a slice of bug toast whether the people hiking it live or die, and that’s even before one considers the magical forces at work in it.
A side note: One can’t fully appreciate this book without having some appreciation for the Adirondacks themselves – or really, any vast swath of wilderness largely untouched by human presence. To that effect, if you like to read books in themed clusters, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods pairs excellently with Halfway Dead, both because of its similarly reverent sense of wonder and terror toward the woods and because it provides historical context that enhances certain parts of this novel. Halfway Dead clearly establishes that the pivotal American Chestnuts are severely endangered, the species nearly wiped out during a blight in the early 1900s, but a later read of A Walk in the Woods took my reaction from “Ok, so they found some chestnuts” to “HOLY SH** THEY FOUND AMERICAN CHESTNUTS! 😀 😀 :D” Plus it’s just a good read for people who like the idea of hiking but not the inconvenience of probably being eaten by bears in the isolated wilderness. But I digress.
If I were to fault Halfway Dead for anything, it would be how complicated the plot becomes at points. There are lots of characters and lots of different motivations circling around every facet of the conflict, from people who want to protect the pivotal American Chestnuts, to people who want to exploit the Chestnuts (both independently of the magical storyline), to Carlie’s family history surrounding that grove, to the aforementioned Viking vampire, who has his own complicated reasons for being in the woods in the first place, to the dark force at the center of it all, which has origins the reader never would have expected at the beginning of the novel. It all comes together nicely in the end, but until the reader reaches the end, it sometimes makes for a disjointed first read as one wonders why exactly the novel focuses on this new character or that new detail without a reason that’s apparent in the moment. (On the flipside, though, it makes the second read-through that much more entertaining.)
That said, its plot pretzel can be a bit exhausting – but the world in which that pretzel was tangling was so appealing that, in the end, it barely diminished the reading experience. If you’re looking for a cozy contemporary fantasy with just a twist of darkness, and a waffle-slinging witch who wrangles it all with panache, Halfway Dead is a must-read.
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